Cabin Testing Essential to Regain Passenger ConfidenceBy Alicia Arizpe | Mon, 08/24/2020 - 12:12
Q: How has the COVID-19 outbreak impacted Queretaro’s aerospace industry?
A: The outbreak led to the grounding of a large part of the world’s fleet. Between March and May, some countries grounded up to 90 percent of their fleets. These circumstances will likely cause the commercial aviation sector to shrink by about 50 percent in 2020. Business aviation has only been impacted by 10 percent, while defense aviation has not been impacted. For that reason, the impact of the outbreak varies depending on the company but some in Queretaro have seen their operations reduced by 30-40 percent.
Mexico’s aerospace industry will bounce back once the global aerospace sector recovers. While we are working with the other clusters to promote the recovery of the sector, most of the country’s companies are foreign so they depend on the recovery of their main offices. What we can do is protect our employees.
Q: What measures are companies within the cluster implementing to contain the spread of the disease?
A: The cluster has been heavily involved in the implementation of safety measures to protect our employees. Large companies in the aerospace sector dealt with the pandemic in other countries before it arrived to Mexico, so we knew what to do. We held several meetings with the state government and helped it become aware of the protective measures that are necessary for local workers. These measures have helped to contain the spread of COVID-19 in Queretaro and avoid the spikes that have occurred in other regions.
After the aerospace industry was classified as essential in Mexico, we began implementing measures to allow our employees to return safely to work while avoiding catching or spreading the virus. These measures have allowed us to avoid internal spreads within plants. While some companies have reported cases, these have arisen from outside the plants and have been successfully contained. We are now operating normally even though production has decreased as demand is 30-50 percent lower than at the start of the year. The outbreak has changed the work environment and accelerated the introduction and acceptance of remote work. Now, most of those who are able to work from home are reporting the same or even higher productivity as before. While remote work was initially an imposition due to the outbreak, it is here to stay. Now, the challenge is ensuring that workers have the appropriate tools to fully and comfortably perform.
Aerospace engineering, design and other computer work are fully compatible with remote work. While not all positions can work remotely at all times, those who need to be at the plant can do so only once a week. For instance, at ITP Aero, we have fully implemented home office by providing most of indirect employees with equipment and laptops so they can work remotely and none of them are coming to the office.
Q: What are the main challenges the sector is facing to return to pre-pandemic levels?
A: The aerospace industry is a global sector so its recovery does not depend on measures taken by local governments or the industry. A recovery to pre-pandemic levels will take time; according to some companies, from four to seven years. There are several possible scenarios for recovery but it will all depend on the measures governments across the globe take to stop the outbreak and increase mobility across countries and regions. Quarantines and closed borders greatly limit air mobility, which will significantly delay the sector’s recovery, but the development of a vaccine could greatly help.
The industry has to work on recovering passengers’ trust as many of them are still wary of potential exposure to COVID-19 in an aircraft. While several companies state that aircraft are fully safe as the use of HEPA-certified air filters protect passengers, it still is necessary to thoroughly test cabins. The industry still has a long way to go in testing whether passengers are safe from COVID-19 infection if they fly with a sick passenger. Testing will be essential to regaining passenger trust and get them to fly again. Major aerospace companies such as Airbus and Boeing need to invest in cabin COVID-19 safety research and testing during flight as this is now the greatest concern in the industry, way beyond fuel efficiency, wing aerodynamics and other previous R&D programs. The industry has to prove that airplanes are contagion-proof. Mexico, and mainly Queretaro aerospace sector, can greatly contribute to these research programs thanks to its many research and innovation centers.
Q: Considering the sharp reduction in orders, what measures should be implemented to support the local aerospace sector?
A: Once the outbreak is contained it will be necessary to support the industry’s recovery, in which case support from government entities will be essential. In other countries, local governments are helping with the sector’s recovery. For instance, the French government has made significant contributions to support the aerospace industry. The aerospace industry has long ROI paybacks times so banks often avoid it. For that reason, government support is essential. In Mexico, it will be not easy to obtain governmental support but there are several schemes that can be used to support the sector. The first is through direct financial support for the industry but this scheme has rarely been used in Mexico. The second is through support for specific programs such as those related to R&D. Another possible choice is through the offset schemes for defense acquisitions such as those done by SEDENA or SEMAR to repair their equipment or acquire new aircraft, which would lead Mexican aerospace companies to increase the technology base and the qualified employment. The last option is to provide fiscal incentives, such as reducing taxes. Without support, the sector will take much longer to recover.
Q: What initiatives will the Queretaro Aerocluster implement to support local companies?
A: For the past few months we have been in fire-fighting mode, addressing the numerous problems the sector faces due to the outbreak. In Queretaro, aerospace companies shrank their workforce by 14.5 percent on average. We are looking for ways to return to previous manufacturing rates. We will wait until the state’s COVID-19 “traffic light” changes to yellow. At this point, our priority is everybody, including sensible staff, to return to normal operations. In the midterm, we will focus on getting governmental support.
One of the cluster’s priorities is to continue incorporating SMEs into the aerospace supply chain. While this program is still operating, this year will be a slow one as the entire aerospace industry has been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Larger companies around the globe are implementing measures to mitigate the effects of the outbreak, including bringing back in-house capabilities that were previously outsourced to SMEs. This allows larger companies to control their financial liquidity and avoid cash-outs.