March Aviation Industry Update, with Michael Wells and Bob Brents


Airbus photo provided by Nicole Elliott

Interviewer: Cameron Boozarjomehri

Welcome to the latest installment of the Knowledge-Driven Podcast. In this series, Software Systems Engineer Cameron Boozarjomehri interviews technical leaders at MITRE who have made knowledge sharing and collaboration an integral part of their practice. 

Air travel has become so common place to the point where many of us never even think about the wonder of flying on an aircraft or being able to send things around the world over night. And yet every day, countless agencies and individuals around the world move in a coordinated ballet even in the face of a global pandemic. Michael Wells and Bob Brents return with their tri-annual Aviation Industry Update podcast—an in depth look at some of today’s most pressing challenges facing aviation. This session focuses on the complex logistics involved with distributing COVID vaccines across the country (Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson) as well as the various applications that can help ease travel restrictions for a public eager to get back to normal.

Click below to listen to podcast:


Podcast Transcript
Cameron: 00:00 Welcome everyone to the latest edition of the aviation industry update. Today, the Knowledge-Driven Podcast has the pleasure of being joined yet again by Bob Brents and Michael Wells. Do you guys want to introduce yourselves?
Bob: 00:10 Thanks Cameron. Hi, I’m Bob Brents. I’m an aerospace and systems engineer working in the airspace design, requirements, and testing group within the MITRE Corporation Center for Advanced Aviation System Development.
Michael: 00:22 And I’m Michael Wells. I’m an economist, and I work in the Transportation Innovation Center here at The MITRE Corporation.
Cameron: 00:27 Fantastic to have you both. The last time we talked, the effects of COVID-19 on aviation was one of the major topics. Have things changed since our last aviation industry update with respect to COVID?
Bob: 00:38 Yeah. Great question, Cameron. Since the last aviation industry update, I think the number one story with respect to COVID-19 is the fact that we have vaccines. In December, the FDA approved emergency use of two vaccines in the U.S., one by Pfizer and the other by Moderna. The challenge for the aviation industry is now distributing the vaccines where and when they are needed. It definitely presents a substantial logistical challenge, as these vaccines are very valuable and also require special handling.
Cameron: 01:09 Yeah. Maybe you can speak a little more to what that logistical challenge really is like? Because I know each vaccine has its own special things going on.
Michael: 01:17 Yeah, that’s right, Cameron. Well first, there’s a need to ensure that the shipping containers and aircraft are in the right place at the right time with minimal delays. Now, that might kind of seem like a trivial problem, but in normal logistics, right, kind of when airlines ship everything that they always do, no one pays much attention to the shipping containers if they sit around in a warehouse maybe until their next flight. But these are very special shipping containers and a very special cargo. On top of that, there are additional security requirements that need to be taken into consideration because the vaccines are actually quite valuable on the black market, as you might imagine. And finally, of course, as I think you were getting at, Cameron, there’s the challenge of keeping these vaccines at a temperature where they don’t degrade. They have to be maintained at the right temperature from the factory all the way to the clinic. And Pfizer’s vaccine is particularly difficult in this regard. It actually needs to be stored at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cameron: 02:10 Yes, this one looks some really daunting requirements. How is the industry keeping up with all this?
Bob: 02:16 This truly is an example of it takes a village. In addition to the local distribution chain, the FAA, the airlines and airports are all working together to address the challenges of distributing these vaccines. So for years, the FAA has had a limit to the amount of dry ice that can be carried on an airliner. But the Pfizer vaccine, for example, must be shipped in dry ice. So for the COVID-19 vaccine, the FAA is allowing the airlines to carry considerably more dry ice than previously allowed. The FAA is also ensuring the availability of air traffic services and prioritizing flights carrying vaccine doses.
Cameron: 02:54 So what is the role of the airlines in all of this?
Michael: 02:56 Well, FedEx and UPS are the two main operators that are sharing domestic distribution of the vaccines and coordinating with the federal government. They’ve basically agreed to literally divide the country in half. So FedEx is delivering vaccines to the Western half of the country, while UPS is covering the Eastern half. But both of these shippers are using high-tech tracking devices to monitor the shipping containers of the vaccine. They have built-in systems essentially that detect motion, exposure to light, the temperature, and also track the location of the shipping container. So they’ll know if, basically, if something’s gone wrong along the way so that the vaccine hasn’t gotten to a temperature that it wasn’t supposed to be at. Now while FedEx and UPS have responsibility for the vaccine distribution in the U.S., which is a major undertaking, there’s actually other U.S. airlines—like Delta, United, and American—that have also been shipping the vaccines and some of these kind of longer distance trunk routes, just getting it from major point A to major point B.
Cameron: 03:51 So I understand air travel itself is in its own little quagmire, but how are the vaccines impacting air travel? Is this expected to help ease some travel restrictions or maybe some international travel restrictions we’ve been hearing about?
Bob: 04:06 Good question, Cameron. Of course, once Coronavirus is no longer a threat, both domestic and international travel should begin to open up. Currently though, most countries still have a number of restrictions on travel to or from other countries. Sometimes travel is prohibited and other times, a quarantine is required upon arrival. Now some of these restrictions could potentially be relaxed though, if arriving passengers could provide some kind of proof of vaccination or proof of a negative result on a COVID test prior to their departure. If such allowances are made, however, these test results or vaccinations would need to be verifiable to be useful.
Cameron: 04:49 Yeah. I don’t know how I feel about traveling, but I’d certainly feel better traveling if I knew it was safe. How would you verify vaccines, though? Especially when I imagine that it must be so difficult to keep track of the different documents and everything that individual countries probably need.
Michael: 05:03 Yeah, Cameron, that’s definitely an issue. So, actually, one solution that’s kind of being tested is the idea of kind of what they call a health passport app for mobile devices. There’s a number of different apps that are kind of in the final phase of development. One that I can think of is called a CommonPass—It’s a health passport being developed by a nonprofit consortium called the Commons Project. And the International Air Transport Association, IATA, is also working on one, which they call the IATA Travel Pass.
Cameron: 05:30 Yeah. I always hear about all these different apps and they all sound really cool, but I never really get a feeling for how they’re supposed to work or what kind of data goes into them.
Bob: 05:38 Well, so, Cameron, these apps are designed to accept… to verify test or vaccination results, right? This is kind of important because it allows national and international authorities to know that the health assessment or vaccination data is real and not counterfeit. Now, some of the apps also provide information you need related to your itinerary. For example, Michael mentioned the IATA Travel Pass; it’s linked to IATA’s database of up-to-date country-specific travel requirements. Now, of course, these apps function as a standard reporting format for vaccination and test results. This is important so that  local and national authorities in any participating country will be able to interpret the information provided by the app and have confidence in its validity.
Cameron: 06:27 I always think that’s so cool how we’re applying technology and all these tools to help with dealing with the, not just the distribution of vaccines, but the virus as a whole. So that’s really cool to hear. All right, this is going to sound like a bit of a weird segue, but I listen to the news a lot and heard our old friend, the Boeing 737 Super MAX, is returning to service. I was curious if you guys want to talk a little bit about that.
Michael: 06:52 Yeah, certainly. So, yeah, as you said, Cameron, it was about two years ago that the MAX was grounded by the FAA and other aviation regulators around the world, basically due to safety concerns with primarily… with one of the automation systems on the aircraft. Like I said, after nearly two years, in November, the FAA finally gave the go-ahead for the aircraft to return to service as long as the number of changes are made. So some of those changes are on the aircraft side, for example: namely that new flight control software needs to be installed basically on every single 737 MAX aircraft before that specific aircraft is approved for flight. And then other changes are required on the airline side, principally for the pilots that will be flying the aircraft. Each of those pilots needs to take a newly required training in a flight simulator, basically prior to beginning to fly the aircraft.
Cameron: 07:41 I mean, that sounds like good news for Boeing and probably as customers. But I’m really curious to see if those customers who actually bought these plans are eager to get them. I mean, the pandemic has really been slowing down travel, right?
Bob: 07:52 Absolutely, Cameron. But a number of airline customers are in fact taking delivery of the aircraft that had been parked in Seattle and elsewhere waiting to be shipped. But there’s also been a lot of canceled orders, too. Boeing’s end-of-year total for aircraft orders stood at just over negative 500 aircraft—think about that—which reflects a lot of canceled orders in 2020. Now, we can compare this to a similar type of aircraft—a A320 and A321 series from Airbus—which had just over 200 orders on the plus side last year.
Michael: 08:28 But it’s also important to put this in some context, Cameron. So Boeing actually still has a backlog of over 3,000 of the 737 MAX on order. So that would suggest that there’s a long-term demand, or long-term confidence, in the aircraft from airline buyers. But as you said, the pandemic is still going on, and it’s just that some airlines at this particular moment are actually kind of looking for a way not to take immediate delivery of new aircraft. That’s not true for every airline, of course. But depending on their individual financial conditions, they may be wanting to sort of not take delivery right now, even though they had agreed to it.
Michael: 09:04 So what happens is that… what …sort of the general consensus in the industry is, is  that a lot of customers are using the kind of the escape clauses in their purchase contracts for the 737 MAX. Because it was delayed, they were actually allowed to back out of the contract. So for Boeing customers, a number of them have just basically simply taken advantage of this. But, again, the conventional wisdom seems to be that once the pandemic is behind us, that 737 MAX will likely again be on a competitive footing with similar aircraft, such as the A320 and A321.
Cameron: 09:40 All right, guys. Well, thanks so much for this update. Unfortunately, I think we’re about out of time. I want to thank you both for sharing what’s happening with the aviation industry with our listeners. I obviously want to thank MITRE and the Knowledge-Driven Enterprise for making this podcast possible so that we can get all this really cool information out there. And, of course, I look forward to talking to you guys in the next few months when we get our next update.
Bob: 10:00 Thanks, Cameron. It’s always a pleasure.
Michael: 10:02 Yep. Likewise. Thank you, Cameron, very much. Appreciate it.


Cameron Boozarjomehri is a Software Engineer and a member of MITRE’s Privacy Capability. His passion is exploring the applications and implications of emerging technologies and finding new ways to make those technologies accessible to the public.

© 2021 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 21-0651

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