Kathleen Ward Kathleen Ward
Former Senior Director, Strategic Communications, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


March 23, 2021


Throughout the past year, airlines have displayed resilience and grit amid unbelievable circumstances. Through changing regulations, travel restrictions, and stay-at-home orders, aviation’s top companies had to adapt quickly and carry essential personnel and critical cargo to meet the needs of our society during an ongoing pandemic.

It’s no secret that our society has been changed by the pandemic, and with it the industries that must adapt to shifting trends.

From supporting the COVID-19 relief effort, to ensuring high standards of safety and service to commercial travelers, the aviation industry has been playing an important role during the pandemic and will continue to do so in recovery.

On March 31, the industry’s top leaders will convene virtually for the U.S. Chamber’s 20th annual Aviation Summit to discuss plans for shifting consumer needs, solutions needed now, and innovations for the future.

So, we asked some of the industry’s leading CEOs what they see as the biggest component to ensuring the industry continues to innovate and move forward in a forever-changed industry. Here’s what they said:

Nicholas Calio, President and CEO, Airlines for America

Nicholas Calio, President and CEO, Airlines for America

Throughout the COVID-19 health crisis, the U.S. airline industry’s resilience and resolve have helped foster innovation and expand the industry’s use of science, research, and data. It is truly remarkable to consider what our industry has collectively accomplished in the last year.

We built and led a consortium of industry stakeholders (manufacturers, airports, and others) which asked the Harvard School of Public Health to research the air travel experience. We implemented extensive measures of protection and learned that these layers – including masks, pre-flight health forms, increased disinfection, and hospital-grade air ventilation – significantly reduce the risk of transmission.

To reduce touchpoints, we have leveraged new technologies, including kiosks and mobile check-in. And, we have utilized new equipment, such as electrostatic fogging to enhance disinfection protocols. This commitment to 21st century solutions will not stop when the pandemic ends.

As an industry, we are emerging from this crisis more educated and have a deeper understanding of the science around the air travel experience. I am confident that we will continue to be led by research and I am certain that many of our measures and commitments will remain in place after recovery, resulting in an industry that is even more resilient and more unified.

Don Colleran, President and CEO, FedEx Express

Don Colleran, President and CEO, FedEx

While the pandemic has changed the marketplace and accelerated some trends, the long-term needs for ensuring the success of our industry remain the same.

We must remain focused on modernizing the infrastructure that supports the U.S. aviation industry. While we have seen significant milestones reached over the past few years, we cannot continue at the same pace. We must continue to invest in new technologies, educate our workforce, and ensure the policies that govern airspace management are performance-based and readily adaptable to accommodate emerging technologies. Without this continued focus and commitment, we will not be able to take full advantage of the safety, efficiency, and sustainability that next generation air traffic control systems can provide.

Coupled with infrastructure investment, the aviation sector has a responsibility to maintain safe, reliable, and affordable service while decreasing its impact on the environment. Business and science must work together on long term and scalable solutions to reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon sequestration. As an industry it is critical that we all support sustainability research and solutions that are credible, scalable, and can be easily adopted across the aviation sector.

Building on safety, efficiency and sustainability in aviation, the development of our future workforce is a priority for FedEx. To succeed as an industry our companies must be more diverse and focused on attracting the next generation of innovators who will create the new networks, more sustainable operations, and improved connectivity that our customers expect.

Tom Gentile, President and CEO, Spirit AeroSystems, Inc.

Tom Gentile, President and CEO, Spirit AeroSystems, Inc.

The long-term outlook for our industry is very positive. As we build back, we can use the opportunity to build a more diverse and inclusive workforce while at the same time continuing to invest in innovation and digitization to drive improved quality and productivity.

Scott Kirby, CEO, United Airlines

Scott Kirby, CEO, United Airlines

As we endure the worst financial crisis in aviation history, we recognize the bold and immediate action the airline industry must take now to confront the global climate crisis. Since our airplanes run on fossil fuels – we simply cannot just eliminate carbon. That's why United is taking meaningful steps to reduce our carbon emissions footprint before our customers take their seats. We recently announced our industry-leading commitment to go 100% green by reducing our carbon emissions 100% by 2050 by investing in carbon capture and sequestration and other emerging technologies – instead of relying on traditional carbon offsets. We realize there’s a limit to what a single company can do alone. Climate change was not created in a silo, so our response cannot be a siloed effort. We must reach across the aisle and across industry to develop coordinated efforts to accomplish what must be our collective goal of carbon neutrality. Writing a check and planting trees someday will not suffice – this is about pioneering a better future today for generations to come.

Jeffrey Knittel, Chairman and CEO, Airbus Americas

Jeffrey Knittel, Chairman and CEO, Airbus Americas

In times of crisis and cash containment, it can be tempting to view innovation projects as luxuries the business can’t afford. Airbus has always viewed innovation as an essential element of our approach – one that benefits our company and the aerospace industry.

We also must understand that the flying public has not lowered its expectations for the industry, and in many ways has raised them. For example, a demonstrated commitment to sustainability is no longer optional, but is expected.

That’s why, even in the midst of the greatest downturn in aviation history, we have continued to pursue ambitious goals for the decarbonization of aviation. That effort begins with current areas of innovation – such as the ongoing development and use of sustainable aviation fuels. It also extends to longer-term initiatives, such as developing alternative propulsion sources on the journey to zero-emission aircraft.

Ben Minicucci, President, Alaska Airlines and incoming CEO, Alaska Air Group

Ben Minicucci, President, Alaska Airlines, and incoming CEO, Alaska Air Group

Recognizing all of the challenges and heartbreak that so many around the world have gone through in these last dozen months, I am excited by the prospect of the aviation industry emerging from the pandemic with the future in sight.

In one word, the biggest component to ensuring the industry and Alaska continue to innovate and move forward is people. Our people – employees, guests, and communities – demand that we grow and evolve. This includes innovating, as we have done, to the highest safety standards; in reopening travel and tourism in new ways to people excited to connect again; in addressing our global climate challenges; and in being inclusive and representative of the communities we serve. At Alaska Airlines we believe that with every hard-hitting challenge comes real opportunity, and that is the attitude I will be leaning into as CEO alongside our 22,000 Alaska Airlines employees.

Carsten Spohr, CEO, Lufthansa Group

Carsten Spohr, CEO, Lufthansa Group

The greatest opportunity for the global airline industry is to continue the momentum of what it does best. It brings people together and enriches their lives, it connects cultures and economies and it contributes to making the world a better and more peaceful place.

Without any doubts, there is still plenty of scope for improving the efficiency of how we do this. This holds true when looking beyond the crisis. We swiftly need to adopt to a post pandemic world requiring a standardized, global, and digital solution for test and vaccination certification. We do our utmost to push forward and support these approaches.

On the other hand we accelerate our ambitions and efforts to reach the goal of a carbon neutral aviation industry in 2050. Our environmental responsibility has become our most important and most effective innovation driver.

In this sense, I would also like to see the industry partners join forces to bring back the spirit of aviation. This is a unique industry that does a lot of good and we should all have more pride in what we do, especially after this crisis. Rather than discuss about limiting the industry we should be talking about the limitless potential of the industry to have a positive impact on the world.

About the authors

Kathleen Ward

Kathleen Ward

Kathleen Ward is the former director for strategic communications at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.