Top executives in aviation at an Embry-Riddle panel discussion presented a picture of a booming industry that is meeting challenges with innovation, while career opportunities abound.
“Working in aviation is an exciting world, it’s an exciting opportunity,” said panelist Edward Onwe, vice president and general manager at VT San Antonio Aerospace. “And of course, the demand for aviation workers will always be there.”
Held April 8 at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach Campus, the “Business of Aviation and More” panel discussion featured Onwe, who represents a leading global maintenance, repair and overall company; Sherry Ortiz, senior vice president at United States Aircraft Insurance Group; Damon D'Agostino, president and CEO of Zephyrus Aviation Capital; and Steve Powell, CEO of Synensys and captain at Delta Air Lines.
All four participants on the panel of experts are Embry-Riddle alumni.
The event kicked off the publication of the spring 2019 edition of Lift, Embry-Riddle’s alumni magazine. The spring edition focuses on Embry-Riddle alumni who have forged successful business careers; both D’Agostino and Powell are featured in the issue.
The wide-ranging discussion at Embry-Riddle brought forth glowing appraisals of the future of the aviation industry, a future that will continue to take shape despite setbacks such as the tragic crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max on March 10, speakers said. Asked whether that event would cause an industry slowdown, D’Agostino said that air travelers will still “need to get from Point A to Point B,” predicting a “shifting, rather than a slowdown.”
D’Agostino, who has had experience leasing planes to airlines in more than 60 countries, reported that the commercial airline industry “turned a corner” to profitability about six or seven years ago and is “net positive.” Entities that provide capital to aviation companies, as well as average investors such as retirement account holders, D’Agostino said, can make substantial gains investing in aviation over the long term, he said.
Onwe emphasized the ever-increasing need for aircraft maintenance technicians, pointing out that the average age range of such workers is 49-53.
"If you do the math, ten years from now, where will all those workers be?," Onwe said, adding that while some airlines have incentive programs for young people to enter the field, more programs are needed. "We don't want to get to the point where it's a national crisis and the federal government has to step in."
Students asked questions toward the end of the event. Some who raised concerns about artificial intelligence and automation causing a shrinking effect on the opportunities available to newcomers to the industry were told they need not worry.
“I think such technology creates other opportunities,” said Ortiz.
Also on the topic of increased automation, Powell, who has focused on human error and safety in aviation and in healthcare, stressed that machine intelligence should not be viewed as taking over for humans.
“We may be over-trusting technology,” he said. “We should think of technology as another crew member. How can it help me? How can I manually override it and take control?”
All four panelists stressed that the evolving field of data analytics will have a huge impact on their businesses. Powell gave the example of pooling data on how long it takes airplanes to taxi out from pushback to takeoff, pointing out that each minute that can be shaved off represents a savings of hundreds of pounds of fuel. Onwe said extensive data collected about maintenance operations, together with the software and computing power necessary to make sense of the data, will be a “game changer.”
Ortiz cautioned, however, that de-aggregated data that refers to single flights or events could be harmful to the aviation safety environment, which often relies on anonymity and first-person reporting.
"We've seen an uptick in our plaintiffs' attorneys who are savvy to data that's already collected, so I think generally, being careful with de-aggregated data is extremely important, FOQA (Flight Operations Quality Assurance) data, even data on mishaps on the runway or the ground," Ortiz said. "Plaintiffs are looking for that type of data" at the same time that the aviation industry is wanting to use more representative aggregated data to keep "aircraft safe and maintenance operations safe."
Responding to a student question about whether the industry should be working toward developing ways to use renewable energy sources to fuel aviation, the panelists said absolutely.“Will that drive us toward a new frontier?” said Powell. “I think it will."