4 key takeaways from S'pore Airshow: When will aviation recover? Will there be air taxis?

Unlike in past years, no day of the trade show, being held from Tuesday (Feb 15) to Friday, was open to the public. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Four days, 13,000 visitors, 600 companies from 39 countries and regions. Compared with previous editions, this year's Singapore Airshow had less impressive numbers.

Even compared with the 2020 edition, when many big names pulled out at the last minute because of the Covid-19 outbreak, visitor numbers were down by some 17,000, while the number of exhibitors fell 400 short.

Unlike in past years, no day of the trade show, being held from Tuesday (Feb 15) to Friday, was open to the public.

These, combined with Covid-19's impact on the aviation sector, led the organiser Experia Events to urge people to pay less attention to the value of new contracts signed during the fair, something that was closely watched in pre-pandemic years.

The value of deals signed during the air show was not disclosed this year. At the opening press conference, Mr Leck Chet Lam, managing director of Experia, called on the media and observers to look more at the intangibles.

"The focus here is to leverage on this physical, in-person attendance event for us to connect, converge and have conversations," he said. In other words, it is still far from business as usual.

Four key themes stood out at this year's air show as the aviation industry seeks to move past Covid-19.

Though everyone was masked and meals had to be eaten out of boxes, the mood was more celebratory than sombre. The effect of an in-person event after last year's air show cancellation was uplifting.

1. Aviation to rebound by end-2023 or early 2024

Mr Darren Hulst, Boeing's vice-president for commercial marketing, projected that aviation is set to rebound by the end of 2023 or early 2024, a prediction shared by executives of other aerospace companies.

Nearly 87 per cent of planes are now in active service, and global passenger traffic has returned to 55 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, he said.

Though the multibillion-dollar deals of past years may not have materialised at this year's air show, the optimism was palpable. Participants were almost reaffirming each other, and the effect of this may be reflected in strategies of companies beyond these four days.

Companies such as jet engine maker Rolls-Royce (including its joint venture partner SIA Engineering) and Pratt & Whitney have already said they will hire more than 200 staff in Singapore in the coming years, bringing headcounts back to, or closer to, pre-pandemic levels.

Maintenance, repair and overhaul operations are gaining momentum, with more planes now preparing to take to the skies.

Singapore Airlines (SIA) also confirmed its order of seven Airbus A350 freight planes, and its additional order of another 22 engines to power its fleet of Boeing 777-9 passenger aircraft, for a total engine order from GE Aviation of 62.

This is a far cry from the last two years when companies rushed to cut costs and airlines like Virgin Australia went bankrupt.

Even though Asia and South-east Asia have so far lagged behind Europe and America in air travel recovery, the worst impact of Covid-19 seems to be over.

Mr Hulst said after 2½ years of lost growth, aviation is set to rebound to even higher levels. "We have been shown the resilience of the aviation sector," said Mr Hulst. "It hasn't gone away, and it will not go away."

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2. Time to reduce carbon emissions

For the last four days, sustainable aviation fuels was the talk of the town at the Changi Exhibition Centre. In fact, it gained its own acronym - SAF.

In the absence of contracts and orders for hardware, countless deals were struck to explore, supply and use fuels that can reduce carbon emissions by up to 80 per cent.

Mr Thorsten Lange, vice-president for renewable aviation of Neste, a leading global supplier of sustainable aviation fuels made from waste animal fats and used cooking oil, said everyone wanted to talk to him at the Singapore Airshow.

"Everybody's talking about SAF," he said. "When we say we are from Neste, everybody wants to talk to us. Airlines, producers of engines, we are all preparing for the future."

Like many other industries, the aviation sector has come under pressure to decarbonise. It currently accounts for about 2 per cent of human-induced carbon emissions worldwide, and the International Air Transport Association has set a target for all member airlines to achieve net-zero emissions from their operations by 2050.

At the air show, SIA said from the third quarter of the year, all its flights will use sustainable aviation fuel blended by ExxonMobil.

ST Engineering and engine-supplier Safran also signed a memorandum of understanding to study the use of sustainable aviation fuel in Safran helicopter engines.

Brazilian aerospace company Embraer said it is partnering Norwegian airline Wideroe and Rolls-Royce to go further, looking beyond sustainable aviation fuel to other potential solutions, including electric aircraft and hydrogen fuel cells.

Right now, sustainable aviation fuels must be blended with conventional jet fuel as they are still capped at 50 per cent for safety reasons.

Mr Damien Caze, director-general of the French Civil Aviation Authority, said the industry must convince people that flights can be both safe and environmentally friendly.

"It must not be one against the other. Environment against safety or security, nobody would understand that. We must tread that line," he said.

For Singapore's part, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) said during the air show that a blueprint will be ready by next year to help cut emissions, with goals set for 2030 and 2050, in line with Singapore's pledges to peak emissions by 2030 and to achieve net zero "as soon as viable" in the second half of the century.

"It cannot be a return to business as usual," CAAS director-general Han Kok Juan said.

3. Air taxis generate buzz

Amid the general talk of conventional aviation was a curious subsection at the Singapore Airshow: electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, or eVTOLs, which can be used as air taxis to ferry people or deliver goods.

Exhibitors pitched these as a solution to urban traffic congestion, while being fully electric to reduce carbon footprint.

In crowded areas in Brazil, for instance, Embraer spin-off Eve Urban Air Mobility has completed a month-long simulation of air taxi flights, with a helicopter standing in for the air taxi to gauge demand.

German aviation company Volocopter is the closest so far to bring its eVTOL - resembling a helicopter with multiple rotor blades - on to the market.

Come 2024, Singapore could be one of the first in the world to see such air taxi service, with Volocopter saying during the air show that it wants to begin services in Sentosa and Marina Bay then.

When operational, the air taxis will take off from vertiports - terminals so-called for the way the aircraft lifts off and lands vertically. They are modular in construction and could potentially be affixed to any roof, allowing for more direct transport.

Both Eve Urban Air Mobility and Volocopter said air taxis will save time while remaining affordable, even if they did not specify ticket prices.

Mr David Rottblatt, vice-president of Eve's business development department, said a trip from Jurong to Changi could take just 20 minutes for an eVTOL, envisioning over 200 air taxis making 3,000 flights a day over Singapore in the coming years.

Mr Christian Bauer, Volocopter's chief commercial officer, said there could even be cross-border air taxi trips to Indonesia and Malaysia. 

Whether eVTOLs will become reality as soon as made out will become clear in the years to come, but developments have captured the Singapore authorities' attention.

During the air show, the Economic Development Board and developer JTC Corporation identified Seletar Aerospace Park as a possible "advanced air mobility hub".

Air taxi terminals, hangars and even pilot training facilities could be set up there, they said.

4. Preserving Singapore's air hub status

It has been a tough two years for Changi Airport, which sunk into the red for the first time in the financial year that ended March 31 last year, recording a 98 per cent drop in passenger traffic from the previous year.

By September, it had slid from the ninth largest airport in the world - based on the number of seats offered to passengers - to 134th.

While the recovery of Asean travel still lags behind Europe and the US, independent aviation analyst Brendan Sobie said that domestic connectivity in the region has been largely re-established, with 560 domestic routes - compared with 750 prior to the pandemic - already back in operation.

Despite Singapore's slower recovery, international presence at the Singapore Airshow remained strong, with overseas participants keen to re-establish contacts with key partners here.

Participants at the Singapore Airshow said the Republic continues to be seen as a front runner in technological development and a link to access the region.

The French delegation, led by the French aerospace industry association Gifas, returned with a delegation of 26 French companies, more than double its presence at the 2020 show.

Mr Pierre Bourlot, Gifas managing director, said attending the Singapore Airshow was a "no brainer", as it is one of the few air shows with both defence and civil elements, while Ambassador of France to Singapore Marc Abensour said: "In terms of innovation, disruptive technologies, there are many French actors based here which see Singapore as a way to test-bed new technologies. For instance, predictive maintenance. There are so many things which are being developed here in Singapore."

Meanwhile, the US contingent continued to be the largest international exhibitor for the fourth edition in a row, displaying its assets like the KC-46 Pegasus aerial refuelling tanker, the fifth-generation F-35A Joint Strike Fighter and the B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber.

On the sidelines of the air show, US Air Force General Kenneth S. Wilsbach, who is commander of the Pacific Air Forces, cited how the Republic of Singapore Air Force buys a lot of the same equipment as the US Air Force.

Mutual interest is the foundation of this relationship, he said.

The same can be said for the 600 companies from 39 countries here. Barring further major disruptions to the industry, the next air show could see a return close to normality for an industry that was one of the most heavily battered by Covid-19.

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