Attempting to predict the future is a fool’s game, as the emergence of a global pandemic with staggering health, social and economic consequences illustrated during what was a truly dreadful 2020.

Scroll back exactly one year, and Flight International’s main Comment article – devoted to Boeing’s woes with the then-grounded 737 Max – used the headline ‘Annus terribilis’. Little did we know what was to come…

Stored Lufthansa A380

Source: Santi Rodriguez/Shutterstock

2020 was a long-haul slog

Indeed, an accompanying article named ‘What a year’ noted falling commercial orders, and offered this sage wisdom: “Look back to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-2009; in geo-economic terms it does not get worse than that.”

The reality of the coronavirus spread saw airlines around the world ground entire fleets, and some carriers shutter their operations permanently. Long-haul business disappeared almost entirely, leading to Airbus A380s and Boeing 747-400s heading for long-term storage or the breakers’ yard.

We enter 2021 with recent optimism about the availability of newly approved vaccines and their promise of a return to some sort of “normal” threatened by a new and more transmissible strain of coronavirus. Earlier optimistic forecasts of air travel returning to perhaps 75% of pre-pandemic levels by mid-year now feel like fantasy, as many wary travellers are likely to be considering the health benefits of planning a second summer “staycation” in succession.

Covid-19 aside, the coming year is already full of uncertainty. Can a returning 737 Max earn the confidence of regulators around the globe, and – just as importantly – of the travelling public? Will a simmering trade war between China and the USA erupt and restrict the sale of Western jets to Beijing’s carriers? And what chaos might await regarding the UK’s trade relations with the EU, and Brexit’s implications for the nation’s airlines?

Add to this list the as-yet unknown policy decisions of a new US administration under President-elect Joe Biden, and what actions might be taken during Donald Trump’s last days in office, and 2021 already feels fraught with risk.

Should this pessimism prove ill-founded, there also is a very real chance that more airlines in Europe and further afield could go bust in a post-pandemic age, once the state aid that they currently rely on is withdrawn.

But, while many of us have not set foot inside an airliner since the coronavirus changed our lives, the crucial role of aviation during the crisis has been clear for all to see. From repatriating sick and stranded passengers to flying vitally needed supplies of personal protective equipment boxed and stacked on passenger seats under cargo nets, and keeping global trade flowing, aircraft have been and remain vital assets.

And, if one small positive can be taken from 2020’s turmoil, it is that airlines and manufacturers alike – partly thanks to the insistence of governments – have finally taken seriously the environmental agenda and are actively pursuing new propulsion systems. We can expect hybrid-electric designs to make rapid progress over the next few years, while the industry pursues more promising zero-emissions technologies such as hydrogen fuel for a next generation of products – as notably backed by Airbus in 2020.

In all likelihood, we should be prepared for things to get worse before a recovery comes. So, charge your glasses – whether they be half-full or half-empty – and let’s go again, into the unknown.