Just over a decade after Orville and Wilbur Wright’s inaugural flight, the first commercial airline carried its single passenger from St. Petersburg, Florida to Tampa on January 1, 1914. In the century since, America’s engineering know-how has extended the range, speed, and size of aircraft to make every corner of the globe more accessible.
But for all the challenges that engineers have solved over the decades, many more remain. Fuel costs, for example, have hampered the growth of airlines, and while prices have leveled off in the past couple years, the $31.1 billion that domestic airlines spent on fuel in 2013 is more than triple what they spent just a decade ago.
Those fuel costs, combined with competitive airfares, are eating into profits. Airlines will make just $5.42 for every passenger they fly this year, a profit margin of 2.4 percent. And this is an improvement over two years ago, when airlines eked out a mere $2.05 per passenger. Adding to the struggle, airline cargo revenue has slumped in recent years as customers shift to marine, rail, and ground transportation.
The future of flight
As with many challenges in aviation, however, smart engineering could hold the answers to reversing these trends. Right now some of the best minds in engineering are working to improve airplane fuel efficiency, reduce the frequency and cost of maintenance, and put the next generation of planes in the air in months rather than years. These advances, made possible by technically skilled teams of engineers, are expected to make a measurable difference not only in keeping the airline business aloft, but improving the industry for businesses, investors, and consumers alike.
These initiatives are driven by aircraft manufacturers’ new incremental approach to design. Forgoing major overhauls that might take a decade or more to complete, manufacturers are now emphasizing upgrades that arrive significantly faster, including fuel-efficient engines, composite wings, improved aerodynamic tail assembly materials, and more. Engineering talent is also turning to previously untapped resources, such as the masses of data collected by various sensors throughout an aircraft. This information can be used to make flight more efficient in a number of ways, including anticipating maintenance events to keep more airplanes operational, safe, and generating profit.
Building a better airplane
The aviation industry is filled with big dreamers who push the limits of mankind and create tools to keep us moving upward and onward. For engineering staffing agencies, the talent needed to propel the airline industry further into the 21st century is eager to get to work. Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin are among the top 10 dream employers for engineering students. Yet finding enough qualified, degreed engineers—and at the right moment—could pose the biggest obstacle to the future of air travel.
From internal and external components to avionics and technology, aircraft orders, maintenance, and required upgrades all fluctuate with demand. Manufacturers need to have the right talent waiting in the wings ready to be deployed as soon as business ramps up. This underscores the need to engage students and other talent communities to build an employment pipeline before there are jobs to be filled.
At the same time, manufacturers must work with an experienced talent provider that can deliver the right professionals for the job exactly when they’re needed. Because this talent is so highly specialized and sought after, recruiters dedicated to the aviation industry, especially those with decades of experience working with these engineers, hold an advantage in delivering top performers as soon as demand heats up. Only by making sure degreed engineers are available can manufacturers ensure new components and technologies are consistently working their way into aircraft to improve efficiency, reduce maintenance, and advance flight.
While the aviation industry faces numerous challenges, engineers are working to trim the fuel and maintenance costs that have weighed on profits in recent years. The aircraft that might hold the answers are still under development, and only by tapping the right engineering talent at the right time can the aviation industry continue its evolution and extend its longevity another 100 years.