Meeting Tomorrow’s Aerospace Challenges


2012-10-07 by Thomas Enders, CEO EADS

Not so long ago, the aviation industry pushed the boundaries of technology. Microprocessor capacity grew to meet our needs. We didn’t just drive aeronautics; we drove a whole raft of new innovation.

Today, the average games console has more capability than some single-aisle aircraft, but the airlines can’t even use that fully because key infrastructure dates from the 1950s. Kids playing with pocket games have a direct data link at their disposal, but we’re still using VHF radio for pilot to ground communications!

What’s more, it currently takes 20 years to implement safely a significant step change in aviation technology on an aircraft programme, which has a typical life span of 30 years. The last one off the production line will fly for another 30 years. That gives us an 80 year cycle, which would be a bit like people still driving around in Ford Model B’s or having to spend six weeks on a boat to get to Australia…..

Neither airline profitability nor emissions targets can wait while we launch a series of new aircraft one after the other as the technology matures. We need to treat research and development programs like aircraft programmes, with a single minded focus on value and maturity.

If necessity really is the mother of invention, perhaps it is even time to think about reinventing commercial aircraft. Perhaps we need a more flexible approach, like a robust upgradable platform that could quickly evolve in line with economic and environmental demands; the kind of thing we see already in some military products?

The Governor, the head of Airbus and the head of Spirit in the Press Conference (Credit Photo: SLD)
The Governor of North Carolina, Tom Enders, then head of Airbus, and the heart of Spirit AeroSystems in a ceremony announcing the opening of a composite fuselage facility in Kintson, North Caroline, July 2012. Credit Photo: SLD,

Delivering the right basket of technologies takes time, investment and risk. That’s why we need both a long term vision and the tangible steps to get us there.

In Europe, initiatives like ACARE and FlightPath 2050 are central to that, with targets for 75% reduction in CO2 emissions and a 65% reduction in noise by 2050. There’s a similar approach in the US with NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation project. It aims to move from good ideas to flying hardware by demonstrating a 50% cut in CO2 emissions by about 2025 using innovative scaled test beds.

However, the problems tackled by ACARE and FlightPath 2050 are not only European. The problems being tackled by NASA are not only American. The problems being tackled by strategic partnerships like INSPIRE and ASPIRE are not only in the Indian Ocean and Asian Pacific. Yes, the IATA and ICAO targets provide a more global vision.

But faced with growing challenges and shrinking resources, we still lack a cohesive international approach to fund and implement the concrete steps to deliver them.

Funding in particular needs an overhaul. A global industry tackling a global problem needs global research. Some national taxes are invested in local research, but that restricts opportunities for wider co-operation, which creates duplication and slows the delivery of solutions.

Perhaps instead, global revenues from aviation taxes could be used to fund the research, education and fleet renewal that would actually cut emissions and fuel a greener economy? After all, taxes don’t cut emissions or create jobs. Technology and talent do both!

There is already precedent for treating our taxes differently. After all, ICAO was formed because the world’s governments agreed that an industry with such a unique role needed special treatment. The Chinese government announced it will redirect passenger tax revenues to a development fund for airports, energy saving and emission reductions, including research and development. The EU FlightPath 2050 targets also indicate an intention to go down that road.

However, we have yet to see how that will translate into action.

The European Emissions Trading Scheme situation…raises some serious questions to be asked about plans to spend the $20 billion the world’s airlines will pay to comply between now and 2020. As food for thought, that would be enough to implement an upgraded European air traffic management system, which would cut emissions by 10%; to build enough biofuel refineries to meet the EU’s target of producing two million tonnes by 2020; to develop an entirely new aircraft model that would provide a significant step towards our target of halving aircraft emissions by 2050; and still have enough left over to educate about 20,000 engineers.

And believe me, those engineers would go a long way to solving the current shortage of talent coming into this industry.

Technology holds the key, but there is no innovation without education and while the baby-boomers are heading for the golf course, we’re not filling the gap behind them.

That’s where our efforts for a green economy have to start.

Look at some of the formidable products developed by Russia in the past. Most of those engineers are now in their seventies and that capability is being lost. A similar trend is appearing elsewhere, with around a third of US aerospace workers already hitting retirement age.

That problem is echoed in the fact that America now spends $4 on people over 65 and $1 on the under 18s, with some areas investing twice as much in prisons as in higher education and less than 5% of undergraduates studying engineering.

It’s a similar tale in Australia. Only half the required number of engineers graduated during the last decade, with failure and dropout rates running at around 40%. Likewise, Europe needs 12,000 aeronautics engineers a year, but only 9,000 graduate and up to 40% of them switch to other careers.

Even in Germany, there are half as many engineering students as there were a decade ago, with the Chancellor encouraging young Spanish engineers struggling to find jobs to develop their careers in Germany.

So gone are the days when it was low paid or unskilled workers that had to migrate to find work. And ironically, while overseas students still flock to the traditional bastions of engineering and technology, visa restrictions often mean they leave again straight after graduation.

Worst of all, we are still not realizing the potential of almost half of the population. Despite twice as many boys having literacy problems in high school, only around a third of the maths, science and technology graduates from Europe and the US are female. The numbers who go on to pursue careers in engineering has dropped steadily over the last decade to around 10%, with many then leaving the industry.

The problems start much further down the chain though.

Only one in five twelfth graders in the US achieves proficiency in the core science subjects and the same scores in Europe are below the OECD average, with 20% also struggling in literacy. Even at home, four out of five American aerospace workers would not recommend their children follow a career in the industry.

The impact of all of this is starting to show. Recent Information Technology and Innovation Foundation rankings of 40 countries indicate that Europe and the US are strong performers today. They also reveal that in terms of what has been done to improve innovation capacity in the last decade, the EU and the United States are near the bottom.

Now it’s true that so many numbers probably invite some retorts about how every good statistic automatically generates another. But even if people debate the figures themselves, the important thing is that they paint a picture worth understanding.

That applies, not only to education, but to matching skills with industrial requirements and developing long term career satisfaction that will attract the best engineers to aviation.

Aircraft have become so complex that it is increasingly difficult for individuals to understand how it all comes together and skills sets are changing accordingly, with mechanical engineers now expected to master software development.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some good initiatives underway to turn this around. President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness includes a special task force to generate 10,000 more engineering students per year. Australian academics are teaming up with UNESCO to push the issue up the agenda. The Europe 2020 strategy is starting to show results. Special incentives are in place to recruit more STEM teachers and education is now a key element of ACARE, which is pushing for “centers of excellence” that would allow industry, research centres and education to join forces in attracting and retain talent.

Emerging economies put huge priority and investment into educating a workforce that will drive growth and competitiveness. The traditional economies need to up their game quickly if we are to create a truly global talent pool. School children should be encouraged to understand why science and engineering can be such a great world to explore; to understand how the world around them actually works. Teachers should be properly trained, equipped and supported. Qualified engineers should be enticed back into the fold.

Who knows, perhaps we could even rehabilitate a few who strayed into the financial sector and turn them into more useful members of society that actually help the economy?

What worries me most is that many of us having been saying these things for over a decade now. Technology, partnership and education feed economic and environmental performance. There’s nothing new in any of it. Shifting engineering demographics takes time. Educating a kid through school and university or an apprenticeship takes time. Developing and implementing new technology, air traffic management or aircraft takes time. Evaluating environmental pressures and implementing solutions takes time.

Yet we’ve wasted an entire decade debating these issues instead of resolving them.

There are 250 kids born every minute. Among them are the engineers, scientists, teachers and policy makers who must take global transport beyond the age of fossil fuels and build a truly sustainable economy.

Today kids use iPads before they can walk. They think nothing of getting their bedtime stories via videophone.

But if we don’t sort ourselves out quickly they will cut their transport teeth on technology that has been around since before most of the people reading this article were even born.

The original draft of this article was completed while the author was CEO of Airbus (March 9, 2012)

It appeared in a book entitled Green Growth and Travelism: Letters from Leaders and published by Goodfellow Publishers Ltd.

The article is republished by permission of the author.