Aviation Index 2020 Life before COVID

The 2020 Aviation Index is a time capsule of public attitudes to aviation, recorded just weeks before lockdown restrictions began in the UK in March this year.

Given how hard the COVID-19 crisis has hit the aviation industry, traffic levels seem unlikely to return to 2019 levels for years. Based on Ipsos MORI research, the Aviation Index provides both a picture of public attitudes at the moment aviation changed beyond all recognition, but also a vital insight into which trends might accelerate, and which might reverse as the UK learns to live with the impact of the pandemic in the months and years to come.

Environmental pressure builds

There has been a sea change in public attitudes about aviation and the environment.

The proportion agreeing that airport expansion is the right thing to do has dropped considerably compared to 2019. The vast majority (70%) now feel that the industry should be prioritising emissions for improvement, almost double the number who think it should prioritise reducing noise (36%), the next highest priority. By a margin of 12:1 (73% vs. 6%), the public think the aviation industry should be prioritising investment in greener technology, such as fully-electric commercial aircraft.

Most strikingly, there is evidence more people are recognising that this could come at the expense of choice and low cost. There has been a significant rise in the number of people who disagree with the statement, ‘I don’t think people should be discouraged from flying if they want to, even if this might have a negative impact on the environment’, up to 32% ( 22% in 2019) with agreement dropping to 34% (47% 2019).

'I especially focus on customer centricity and engagement and also being honest about their environmental impact [when choosing an airline].'

Three in five now also say they have done something personally to reduce the environmental impact of the flights they have taken, including finding alternative arrangements for domestic travel. However, people are far more likely to say they will do more in future than to have actually done something already to reduce their environmental impact.

People are also far more likely to believe responsibility for cleaning up aviation lies with government and the industry (78%) than with individuals (6%). When it comes to noise, older people are far less likely to agree to experiencing more aircraft noise if it meant reducing it for others living under a flight path.

NATS has enabled carbon savings of 10.1 million tonnes since 2008, but there is no doubt more needs to be done. With traffic levels currently at an all-time low, the industry does have the opportunity to try and ‘build back better', to reduce noise and emissions and do what's right for our planet while getting ahead of what will be a longer term threat.

Passenger motives

The factors driving choice of airline and airport over the past three years have moved little since 2018, though there is some evidence that price, while still the number one factor, has become slightly less important over time.

Younger travels are more sensitive to price, with cost being the most important factor in the decision-making process for 85% of 18-34 year old, compare to only 64% of over 55s.

Personal experience continue to motivate those who say they will never fly with an airline they feel has a bad reputation. 40% cited an airline’s on-board experience and 24% their perception of its reputation as reasons not to choose a particular airline.

‘There is so much choice I would rather pick an airline with a good reputation and pay more. Due to the experience, and avoidance of hassle with airlines previously commonly delayed.’

Views around safety are consistent too, the vast majority feeling that flying is safer today than it’s ever been. However, perceived threats to flight safety have shifted substantially: the proportion who think terrorism presents the biggest risk to flight safety has almost halved since 2018. How the COVID pandemic changes perceptions around flight safety this year will be fascinating to measure.

Most flyers say they have experienced some sort of delay in the past 12 months to March 2020. For 43%, the delay lasted two hours or more.

Thinking of Brexit

The impact of Brexit on travel habits are yet to be felt during this transition period, however there has been a significant fall in people who are less likely to visit an EU country, falling from 22% in 2019 to just 12% in 2020.

Fewer than one in four say that Brexit has had a direct impact on their travel plans in the past 12 months. However, 64% (66% 2019) expect Brexit to result in longer queues at passport control, and 59% (63%) still expect to need visas to enter EU countries once the transition period ends.

However, fewer people think flight prices to the EU will increase compared with last year, largely due to an increase in uncertainty with more people saying they don’t know.

Has the drone bubble burst?

Much of the concern around drones expressed last year has carried through to 2020. People are still overwhelmingly likely to see drones as posing a significant risk to flight safety during take-off and landing, and are more likely now to think that people should be required to register their drone, something that actually became law for all drones over 250g in November 2019.

84% of people see drones as a real safety risk to flights during take‐off and landing

There is very limited interest in buying a drone in future, with 80% of respondents having no plans to purchase one, something that mirrors John Lewis’s decision to stop selling drones in part due to falling consumer demand.

But while the consumer interest in drones appears to have waned, professional use continues to grow with the likes of Amazon and others pressing on with plans to integrate drones in their operation. Similarly, emergency services are continuing to make use of drones as part of their operation, a use case that continues to enjoy strong support with 86% of respondents in favour.

An uncertain future

When asked to make predictions about the most likely developments to aviation in the long-term future (by 2050), tellingly only 25% of people believe the industry will be carbon neutral by then. In contrast, 51% believe electric aircraft will have overtaken conventional equivalents, while the use of concierge robots at airports is seen as a realistic prospects in the next 30 years.

The future of aviation has perhaps never been as uncertain as it is now. However, the Aviation Index 2020 offers a snapshot of the emerging signals and trends in the industry in the days before COVID struck. Given the ground swell in support for greater action around the environment, it seems certain to continue being a priority for the public once life begins to return to something approaching normal in the months and years ahead.

Read the 2018 and 2019 Aviation Index reports, and download the full tabulated 2020 research.

Technical note: The research was conducted online through the Ipsos MORI Online Panel. A total of 1,000 UK members of the panel aged 18+ took part between 4-6 March 2020. Data are weighted to be representative of the UK population.