The latest expert we’ve had the pleasure of interviewing is John Strickland and our focus was all about how the aviation industry can recover. He’s held senior positions across the aviation industry for nearly 40 years. Specialising in network planning and revenue management, he’s worked with British Midland, British Caledonian, British Airways and KLM UK, where he was instrumental in the decision to establish the low-cost airline, Buzz. His experience has exposed him to the business models of regional, global, network and low-cost carriers. And right now, his advice is in demand for the aviation industry’s recovery.
John and I have known each other for many years and I often see him popping up on CNN, Sky News and the BBC discussing various industry issues as the go-to expert commentator. We have both worked in the sector for many years and share a passion for the industry. Like me, John is a self-confessed geek when it comes to aircraft and he offers guidance from his consulting business, providing strategic insight, management and advisory services concerning the air transport industry.
Nick: So, John, we’re now coming on for one and a half years of chaos, what’s your take on everything?
John: This industry is going to change beyond recognition. But I’d like to view it as a renaissance – the airline industry is a challenging sector at any time in terms of the level of regulation and safety, but the disjointed and rapidly changing approach of individual Governments’ responses to coronavirus is a massive challenge. The very nature of aviation is that it crosses borders and, when rules are different everywhere, this creates big problems.
Global co-ordination of Government regulation and management of the virus with regard to air travel is an absolute necessity – the sector generates billions of dollars around the world, employs millions of people and means trade and business gets to where it needs to be – including vaccines! There has to be a solution developed now and for future crises – because we know there will be more.
I’ve come from the world of aviation – I’m very passionate about the industry. In March last year, when it was all kicking off, I think I was in shock. It felt like mourning a death – I actually wondered if it was the end of my consulting career but I wasn’t ready to retire! I love aviation and I’ve found the pandemic to be a time for reflection. I realised this situation is like a period of war! It will forever change things.
With my experience and knowledge, I feel I can help the industry to recover and provide support for those who still want to be part of the industry: the next generation of aviation leaders.
Nick: How is this going to be fixed? What can the industry do now to heal and evolve?
John: That’s exactly what I’m spending a lot of my time working on. Clients, including airports and investors in the sector, want to know what the industry will look like once the crisis is over. What size will it be? What kind of aircraft will be used and what airline business models will be relevant? Of course, no one knows the answer, but I’ve experienced several of the industry’s crises and actively been part of changing the shape of the industry, so I draw upon this experience to provide the most realistic and helpful advice to clients.
In my work with airports for example, as well as working with them to develop new routes and making current routes sustainable, I also support them with building relationships with airlines and in understanding their strategies. The two parts of the industry have very different agendas, which are not always supportive of each other. This is where having an understanding and appreciation of each other’s issues is crucial and I endeavour to bring both sides closer and foster good relationships.
I mentioned a renaissance earlier; business models will change. The composition of air traffic will shift. The industry is certainly going to be smaller for a period and we’ll see a reduction in size of aircraft, particularly for long haul, too.
We’ve already seen many airlines retiring larger types, including Boeing 747s, Airbus A340s and in some cases even the younger Airbus A380. Airlines are seeking to reduce risk with fewer seats and reduced operating costs, whilst at the same time diversifying opportunities. The Airbus A350 and A321 NEO families, and Boeing’s 737 Max and 787 Dreamliner, for example, are more efficient, burning less fuel whilst also being more mission flexible for both shorter and longer distances. Similarly, I believe that new regional jets such as the Embraer E2 and Airbus A220 are going to play an increasingly important role.
People are going to want to spend less time in busy airports and hubs around the world. Non-stop point to point flights on these smaller aircraft with long-haul capability will, in some cases at least, make that possible.
Conversely, some direct flights may no longer be commercially viable or were already marginal, even before the pandemic. Very seasonal routes or small markets, for example, will continue to be supported by hubs. All this means that airports themselves will need to consider how changes in airline operations will affect their own business models.
Those airlines with lower costs will be nimble and able to recover well. Many will need additional liquidity and will depend on efficient management teams that are willing to make tough yet necessary changes quickly.
Speed of change is not always easy or simple to achieve within the sector. Aircraft technology takes time to change and we have seen the challenges that this creates for manufacturers. The focus on safety and rigorous regulatory processes in the industry are second to none, and aircraft are expensive. You can’t just throw away a plane that doesn’t fit anymore – it doesn’t work like that!
As a result, there has to be careful adaptation. Looking at business travel as an example, after 9/11, we all thought that was it! This area really suffered, but slowly it picked up again, on a smaller scale. Now we have Zoom and Teams, will business people get back on planes? For many airlines, especially long haul, business travel in premium cabins is critical and it can also allow lower economy fares. This means that airlines will need to find ways to compensate for any loss of travel in business class cabins and create new sources of revenue. There will be a need for creative pricing, a growing search for premium leisure and a focus on further development of the premium economy cabin, which I believe will become a new battleground.
Nick: John if you could recommend three things that the industry should think about for the recovery, what would they be?
Right now, I’d expect airlines and airports to be looking at the following three areas
Size and shape
What do the future opportunities look like for routes and demand? This will change and right now is subject to a high degree of uncertainty, but thought needs to be given to forward planning on a highly flexible basis.
Influence of new aircraft
The eternal search for flexibility is more critical than ever. Smaller aircraft that do both long and short sectors economically will be in demand. For example, the Airbus A220 with 150 seats can happily and efficiently do a 45 minute hop and then do a six hour trip elsewhere.
Understanding your customers now
What are the segments? How are you reaching customers in terms of distributing your product? What is the process for getting through airports? How are you going to manage the experience and eliminate queues? Are you thinking enough about the environment? If the industry doesn’t know what customers need or demand, it’s in trouble.
Nick: Any other areas you feel are important now?
Yes. I think we need the support of (and better relationships with) Governments around the world so they don’t crush aviation, but instead work with the industry. Can we really see people never wanting to go on holiday again or not see friends and family abroad? There has to be a solution! We need Governments to invest alongside the industry in new fuels, technology, etc. – the cost of this research is beyond the industry’s own means. It has to be done at a country or global level with active Government commitment.
Governments around the world vary in their approach to environmental charges and taxes. Air Passenger Duty in the UK makes around £3billion, but none of that cash goes back into sustainable air travel. One thing that’s been unbelievable in this crisis is the amazing work the UK has done on the vaccine. Just think what we could do for our industry with a fraction of that focus?
But, right now, customer confidence is the most important thing. Safety credentials have always been paramount – this has always come first. This attention to safety and building confidence is now even more important in the context of Covid.
There are so many important elements to this and the industry has made so much progress since the onset of the pandemic. The use of HEPA (hospital grade) air filters, pre-flight testing, the wearing of masks, the development of digital health passports… these should all create a high level of confidence.
The latter development is really a significant step, not only in building confidence but also because it provides all the information about testing and vaccines on a consistent and reliable basis. The industry needs to keep communicating about this. And it needs to be supported by Governments and adopted globally.
Nick: It’s a complete cliché John, but what would you say to your younger self?
John: That’s easy… never ever give up. Many people get into the industry for love – I mentor several amazing young people now who are deeply passionate about the sector. But it’s a tough industry to be in. That means that you can’t give up. Air travel is amazing. It’s how we learn about the world – it brings cultures together. BA didn’t have a graduate programme when I wanted to get in. I wrote scores of letters to many airlines, and finally British Midland needed someone in telephone sales – I took it. Don’t be snobby about what jobs you’ll do, just grab the opportunity! Look at what you can deliver with value and dignity. Always learn and improve and then see how you can advance.
I have learnt more from failure and setbacks than from success – I failed my A levels by spending too much time watching planes, there were jobs I wanted but didn’t get, reorganisations and take overs that brought uncertainty. I learned from all of that and ultimately embodied the experiences to move ahead stronger.
This mantra (of not giving up) is more important now for anyone in the industry, a settled and stable sector may be several years off, but by perseverance and adaptation, it will experience a renaissance and hopefully evolve into something better and with stronger green credentials.
You can see some of John’s famous interviews and articles with industry leaders here