April 29, 2020

Whether speaking of advanced long-range business aircraft, new aircraft charter technology platforms or the promise of urban air mobility (UAM) and electrically powered vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, the business aviation industry was on an impressive path toward future innovation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Have those efforts now stalled as the U.S. and other countries grapple with this crisis?

During an NBAA News Hour webinar, Joby Aviation Safety Lead Kate Fraser said the answer will likely hinge on a given company’s strength prior to the crisis, among other factors.

“We’re seeing indications and indicators that the companies that are able to be flexible and are able to mold themselves to survive this time are really going to come out strong,” Fraser said. “I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of that type of innovation, whether it’s more on the regulatory front or more internally focused.”

Given the current stifling of the national and global economy, another top concern for all companies is retaining cash and attracting new funding. Those will be key drivers for the pace of innovation through this crisis, said Kirsten Bartok Touw, founder and managing partner for AirFinance.

“You’ve got to look at their cash situation, and [that] applies to whether you’re Joby, Volocopter or Gulfstream,” she said. “The companies that raised money just before COVID-19 will be full steam ahead… [but] I think capital is going to be an enormous inhibitor in the short term. So much innovation depends on the availability of excess capital to invest, and I think that’s going to be an issue, across the board.”

Touw also noted how that situation may drive innovative companies and institutions to combine their efforts. “It’s incumbent upon aerospace manufacturers to band together and fund what is going to be a very expensive effort to build an electric aircraft,” she said. “I hope that you’ll see more industry-wide collaboration as a result of necessity, and possibly more private public partnerships, as the government recognizes that it to get us back on the foot that they need more helpful.”

While the negative effects from COVID-19 can’t be ignored, the pandemic also highlights many advantages of such innovative technologies – including reduced carbon emissions and enhanced personal safety – and may drive progress toward their adoption. Webinar moderator Mike Nichols, CAM, NBAA’s senior vice president for strategy and innovation, pointed to the recently announced announcement of a partnership between UPS and CVS Pharmacy to launch beyond visual line-of-sight drone deliveries in Florida as soon as early May.

Those same factors may also benefit the greater business aviation industry in the near term. “I think it would be unrealistic [once the pandemic is over] to expect people to be suddenly crammed back into a 737,” Fraser said. “That goes against every single protocol we’ve seen for social distancing.”

This webinar, titled “Innovation During COVID-19: Halted or Full Steam Ahead?,” is just one in a series of educational opportunities NBAA has planned for the coming weeks. Learn more, register for upcoming webinars and view recordings of past webinars on the NBAA News Hour site.