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Aviation’s Future Debated at Axios 'What’s Next' Summit

The Shape of Things to Come

Axios—the Arlington, Virginia-based website that’s been (accurately) referred to as a mix between The Economist and Twitter—hosted its second annual What’s Next Summit. The left-leaning hootenanny drew hundreds of business leaders and policymakers and featured breakout discussions undertaken for purpose of delving deeply into the near-term futures of business, entertainment, and travel.

Axios derives of the Greek term ?ξιος, meaning "worthy”.

The Washington D.C. event comprised vigorous debate over aviation’s future. Guests shared their opinions pertaining to what the coming years hold for aerospace manufacturing and funding and the regulatory environments by which the aviation and space industries will be shaped and driven.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) were a recurring theme among speakers, several of whom posited public skepticism of nascent technologies, such as drone delivery, is apt to hamper the proliferation of such.

Zipline—a San Francisco-based designer, producer, and operator of delivery drones—was represented by company vice-president of public policy Kellyn Blossom, who stated: “We always face that skepticism, ‘is it real?’ But, it’s become very real. We’ve done forty-something-million autonomous miles of flying these drones, we’ve done over half-a-million deliveries. In the places that we operate, it's exciting for like the first three and then people are like ‘whatever, it’s no big deal.’ And that's what we want, we want it to be no big deal.”

Discussions also addressed new aerial platforms, to include pilotless aircraft and the promise of such to revitalize regional travel and smaller airports.

Brian Yutko—CEO of Mountain View, California-based eVTOL maker Wisk Aero—set forth: “Bringing flight closer to where people live in a zero-emissions way by default is really interesting to me. … the air transportation sector has become incredibly safe, but it has also become incredibly consolidated in some ways. If you think about how you use the air transportation system, you largely go to many mega-hubs to take flights between those. … you’re not really flying some of the secondary and tertiary airports closer to where people live.”

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) was another popular topic among event attendees. Guests voiced their opinions vis-à-vis the electrification in the airline industry and the principal challenges to decarbonizing aviation.

Axios energy reporter Ben Geman and senior climate reporter Andrew Freedman led the sustainability conversation, during which Boeing sustainability and future mobility director Ellen Ebner remarked: “Sustainable aviation fuel. … is the most important thing that we can do to help the aviation industry decarbonize. Sustainable aviation fuels have the potential to reduce the lifecycle emissions of a fuel by up to eighty-percent. Unfortunately today, sustainable aviation fuels are less than 0.1-percent of total jet fuels and so the challenge on this is to scale.”

United Airlines chief sustainability officer Lauren Riley added: “Sustainable aviation fuel is 2-to-4-times the cost of conventional jet fuel. So when you think about some of the really significant challenges facing sort of this uptake and creating of a marketplace, it’s that, and with commercial airlines, we have very razor thin margins, particularly coming out of COVID. So until there’s sort of parity in supply and cost to each airline, it’s always going to be who’s moving, how quickly to take on this cost that really could significantly impact the financial stability of the airline.”

Melissa Sabatine, federal public affairs manager of sustainable aviation for Neste Oil Corporation—a Finnish oil refining company and producer of SAF brand MY Sustainable Aviation Fuel—averred: “The really significant thing in there for SAF is the creation of a new SAF blender’s tax credit. And you all know if you’ve been in Washington, it’s very difficult to get the tax code amended to get a new tax incentive. And the reason that was possible was many years of commitment and collaboration through a broad industry coalition. And that really is what it’s going to take to move the needle, to get to our decarbonization goals of the industry is to continue to have that commitment and that collaboration as an industry.”

In addition to extensive discussion of aviation and aviation-related topics, the second annual Axios What’s Next Summit saw debate over Artificial Intelligence (AI). Many, if not most speakers, expressed concern over AI and the emergence of the dreaded Technological Singularity, a hypothetical future point in time at which technological growth exceeds human control, accelerating irreversibly and occasioning unforeseeable changes to human civilization—likely its abrupt and violent end.

Ironically, many event participants attended virtually, utilizing AI for image generation, creating marketing materials, and conducting research or summarization. A speaker appreciative of irony cited a 2022 report that found roughly half the world’s major companies currently utilize AI tools the likes of ChatGPT. The report further stated that 85-percent of Fortune 500 companies intend to employ AI technologies before the end of 2023.

FMI: www.axios.com


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