Top 5 Airline Industry and Aviation Trends of 2021

by Josh Howarth - July 15, 2021

In 2020 many people found out just how essential the airline and aviation industry is to our lives.

And as a result of technological innovation, how we fly may be changing faster than it ever has.

To learn about some of the most exciting changes taking place in the aviation sector, read on below.

1. Supersonic Passenger Jets Could Cut Flight Times in Half

Since the European Concord was grounded in 2003, there hasn’t been a supersonic passenger aircraft to take to the skies.

That looks like it will soon change.

Even though we don’t have any commercial supersonic flights yet, a variety of companies are very close to making this a reality.

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Searches for “supersonic speed” have increased by 3300% over the last 15 years.

Some in the industry are even predicting that commercial jets will be reliably flying faster than the speed of sound by the mid-2030s.

Back in 2016, NASA took initiative by contracting with Lockheed Martin to develop a supersonic jet that does away with the trademark “sonic boom” – making supersonic travel easier for civilian passengers.

But more recently, substantial progress has been made by a few start-ups working quietly behind the scenes.

Boom Supersonic announced (in 2020) that it had created the world’s first privately funded and developed supersonic jet.

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Search interest in Boom Technology has risen by 333% in five years.

The XB-1 (nicknamed the Baby Boom) is just a single-seat jet intended to demonstrate Boom’s ability to build quiet supersonic passenger jets.

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Boom’s XB-1 “Baby Boom” Supersonic Jet.

The aircraft is expected to make its first test flight sometime in 2021.

The XB-1 is essentially a way for Boom to demonstrate a smaller design of its commercial supersonic jet concept – the Overture.

Unlike other startups (which we will discuss below), the Boom Overture is expected to be a commercial airliner.

Boom predicts that it will carry 65 to 88 passengers, will fly at Mach 1.7 speed, and will be net-zero carbon emitting.

At this speed, Boom estimates that flights from Los Angeles to Sydney will take just eight and a half hours (compared to over fourteen hours now). And flight time from Tokyo to Seattle will be cut in half (to just four and a half hours).

On June 5th, this dream came one step closer to reality.

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A rendering of a United branded Boom Overture.

United has also announced plans to start offering supersonic flights by 2029.

In addition, Japan Airlines and Virgin Atlantic Airways have also placed non-refundable deposits for 20 and 10 Overtures respectively.

And while supersonic travel is still prohibited over land in the U.S., this hasn’t deterred Boom. It estimates that there are still 500 possible routes connecting coastal cities around the world.

Aerion Supersonic, an aviation company started in 2004, has long been developing its supersonic business jet – one that was equipped with “boomless” propulsion.

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Searches for Aerion Supersonic were up by 2200% over the past five years.

Unfortunately, Aerion was forced to shut down in May of 2021 because of a lack of funding, leaving Boom as one of the oldest companies in this nascent market at just seven years old.

However, another start-up also entered the fledgling market in 2019.

Exosonic made headlines in 2020 by earning a contract to develop what could become a supersonic Air Force One.

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Search interest in Exosonic has risen by 99x in the past year.

In addition to the Air Force One jet, Exosonic is developing the supersonic airliner that it says will be able to fly over land without emitting a supersonic boom.

The company expects to introduce this aircraft sometime in the 2030s.

The aerospace company Virgin Galactic has also thrown its hat into the ring.

Richard Branson’s space company is in the process of developing a business jet that can travel at Mach 3 (much faster than Boom, Aerion, or Exosonic’s current iterations).

This means that Virgin’s supersonic jet could take executives across the Atlantic in 90 minutes. The best the Concord did was three hours in 1996.

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Virgin Galactic’s supersonic jet concept

And while the jet has yet to be developed, the FAA and NASA have taken interest in certifying the aircraft.

2. Sustainable Fuel Sources are Taking Precedence

A growing problem with air travel is its contribution to the world’s carbon emission problem.

While air travel only accounts for roughly 2.5% of total carbon dioxide emissions, the amount of carbon emitted has been growing at a rapid rate.

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Carbon emissions from aviation since the 1940s.

The latest data (from 2018) shows that the airline industry emits over a billion tonnes of CO2 each year.

And as the above chart shows, this number has quadrupled since the 1960s.

As more of the world starts to travel – right now only about 20% of the world regularly uses air travel – this could become more of a problem.

Aviation Benefits predicts that over 10 billion passengers will fly by 2050. This will cause planes to emit around 1.8 billion tonnes of CO2 if nothing is done about the problem.

Since air travel is such a small contributor to global carbon emissions, you may be tempted to think that nothing is being done. But you would be wrong.

Airbus has already committed to creating the first carbon-neutral commercial aircraft by 2035.

The European jet manufacturer is planning on creating three classes of commercial jets that run on hydrogen instead of bunker fuel.

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Airbus’s three-plane concept for its ZEROe initiative.

Using hydrogen to travel could drastically reduce carbon emissions. The only waste that hydrogen puts off is water.

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Searches for hydrogen fuel have risen by 171% over the last five years.

In addition, hydrogen is the easiest element to find on the face of the earth – it is one of the elements that form water.

Maybe, more importantly, hydrogen’s energy density by mass is three times higher than the jet fuel that is currently being used.

However, hydrogen’s natural state is as a gas at typical temperatures. And to be stored like jet fuel, it needs to be converted into a liquid (which involves cooling it).

This is a problem because liquid nitrogen’s energy density is less than that of traditional jet fuel.

ZeroAvia, a company founded in 2017, has tried to solve this problem by using a hybrid battery-hydrogen fuel system.

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Search interest in ZeroAvia is up by 2200% since it was founded.

ZeroAvia has tried to revolutionize the airplane powertrain industry by using electric fuel cells that are powered by hydrogen.

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ZeroAvia’s vision for the future of aviation.

And with funding from the U.K. government, ZeroAvia was able to fly the first commercial aircraft run on hydrogen fuel in September of 2020.

Although it was only an eight-minute flight, the company is aiming to make a longer flight later this year.

And with $21.3 million in funding from the likes of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, British Airways, and many others, ZeroAvia is planning to introduce a 19-seat commercial aircraft by 2023.

The company estimates that by 2026 it will have a 50-seat commercial jet, and by 2030 a 100-seat jet will take to the skies.

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ZeroAvia’s timeline

3. Autonomous Aircraft May Revolutionize Cargo Delivery

Just as the automobile industry is trending towards autonomous driving, the aerospace industry is also moving towards pilotless planes.

And, surprisingly, this isn’t too far-fetched of a concept.

Most commercial jets already have autopilot technology, allowing pilots to let the software handle much of their flying duties.

Nowhere has this push been greater than in cargo transportation.

For instance, FedEx’s CEO announced in 2020 that the company was working with Reliable Robotics to use small autonomous aircraft to transport cargo.

Reliable Robotics and Xwing are both attempting to retrofit Cessnas to create their fleets of autonomous aircraft.

A startup known as Merlin Labs is taking a different approach.

The company is creating autonomous flying software instead of creating its self-flying planes.

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Searches for Merlin Labs are up by 483% over the last 2 years.

It hopes that this software can be used in every commercial jet on the market.

And to help meet this goal, Merlin has already raised $25 million in venture funding from the likes of Google Ventures and other investors.

Merlin does, however, have some serious competition.

In 2020, Airbus debuted its autonomous aircraft software – Take-Off – by demonstrating that its Airbus A350-1000 XWB can take off and land without any human input.

Much like autonomous cars, Airbus’s software allows its planes to use image recognition technology to fly completely autonomously.

Airbus is unlikely to be the last major company in the air travel industry to get into the autonomous aircraft market.

The market is expected to be worth more than $16 billion by 2027, with some estimates putting it at closer to $24 billion by the end of this decade.

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The autonomous aircraft market is expected to grow by roughly 8x over the next six years.

This is compared to a relatively non-existent market today.

Overall, expect new players to enter this market as it grows.

4. The Automotive Industry Looks to the Skies for Growth

For as long as there have been cars, there has been the idea of flying cars.

The general public has always dreamed of ways to travel short distances by taking to the skies.

And as crazy as it sounds, hybrid cars that can drive and fly are already in existence.

Klein Vision, a company started in 2017, has dedicated its entire existence to developing cars that can fly between cities.

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Klein Vision searches are up by 99x over the last 5 years.

And on June 28, this became a reality.

Klein Vision’s AirCar completed its first 35-minute flight between Nitra, Slovakia and Bratislava.

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Searches for AirCar have risen by 1566% since 2016.

The AirCar Pro model has completed 142 successful landings thus far, and Klein Vision is ready to begin production.

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Klein Vision’s AirCar

In addition, a couple of enterprising companies have set ambitious goals of viable air taxi fleets by 2024.

Probably one of the most lauded air taxi companies – Joby Aviation – recently went public via SPAC at a valuation of $6.6 billion.

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Search interest in Joby Aviation has risen by 1800% over the last decade.

Joby has developed full-electric aircraft (similar to helicopters) that can perform vertical take-off and landing.

The company is backed by Reid Hoffman, BlackRock, Toyota Fidelity, the Baupost Group, and JetBlue.

And it recently acquired Uber’s air taxi arm – Uber Elevate.

As a result of this transaction, Joby hopes to use its electric aircraft to offer an Uber-branded air taxi service by 2024.

Joby’s air taxis are expected to have a 150-mile range and reach a top speed of 200 miles per hour. And, contrary to popular belief, Joby’s CEO aims to make the air taxis as affordable as regular taxis.

Archer Aviation has a similar all-electric prototype. And it hopes to serve a similar market as Joby as well.

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Searches for Archer Aviation have risen by 1000% over the last 2 years.

Instead of partnering with a private company, however, Archer chose to team up with a municipality.

The city of Los Angeles has chosen Archer Aviation to provide an air taxi fleet for its Urban Air Mobility Partnership – a public-private partnership between Los Angeles and other tech companies – by 2024.

And while Archer hasn’t begun mass production of its fleet yet, it has the backing to do so.

Earlier this year, the company inked a deal with United Airlines that called for the airline to order $1 billion worth of Archer’s aircraft.

And, much like Joby, Archer too went public via SPAC, at a valuation of $3.8 billion.

It’s not just startups that are going after this market.

With a potential global size of $1.5 trillion by 2040, the air taxi market has attracted the likes of Toyota, Hyundai, Boeing, and Airbus as well.

5. Predictive Maintenance Can Save Costs for Both Airlines and Customers

Large capital expenditures and continuous upkeep have long plagued the airline industry.

In fact, before COVID-19 grounded most planes for a year, the FAA estimated that flight delays cost the U.S. economy over $30 billion in 2019 alone.

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The total cost of flight delays grew at a CAGR of almost 12% from 2016 to 2019.

And while all this lost value isn’t the sole result of maintenance issues, they do play a large role.

PwC predicts that roughly 30% of delays are caused by maintenance issues. That’s roughly $10 billion in value that can be recaptured by preventing major maintenance issues.

In addition to actual maintenance, the regular servicing and inspection of aircraft costs airlines up to 9% of their total annual expenditures.

So it’s no wonder that many airlines want to catch potential problems before they ground a plane.

One answer to this is what is known as predictive maintenance.

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Searches for “predictive maintenance” have grown by 161% over the last 10 years.

According to Airbus, modern commercial aircraft can create up to 30GB of data per day. This data can be used by manufacturers and airliners to diagnose and treat maintenance issues before they happen.

That is, essentially, what predictive maintenance is all about.

Industrial giant Honeywell has taken the reins by introducing a product called Honeywell Forge.

The Forge Connected Maintenance product has been installed by 100 major airlines. It monitors aircraft by channeling equipment data into a database that is analyzed by Honeywell’s predictive maintenance technology.

According to Honeywell, the technology has reduced disruptive maintenance issues by 30-50%. In addition, it has prevented premature engine and equipment replacements 10-15% more often than before.

In addition, Airbus has partnered with Palantir to create Skywise – an open data initiative for airlines.

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Searches for Skywise over the last five years.

Through the use of sensors and equipment on the aircraft, Skywise can capture and utilize data that airlines wouldn’t otherwise have the capacity to understand in the past.

Also, since this is an initiative between one of the two major aircraft manufacturers in the world, this data is essentially used as a feedback loop to allow Airbus and its OEMs to make improvements on future aircraft.

Conclusion

Those are the top five trends impacting the airline and general aviation industry.

Overall, after a tough year, the aviation industry is focusing on making the experience better for the consumer.

Imagine a future where you can fly across the Atlantic in 90 minutes, fly from city to city using your Uber app, or hop on a jet that costs significantly less than an international business class flight.

This is where the aviation industry is headed in 2021 and the near future.

Written By
Josh Howarth
Co-founder of Exploding Topics.
548 Market St. Suite 95149
San Francisco, California
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