Covid-19 proves importance of resilience planning

The pandemic has shown us just how fragile air travel is, but diseases are far from the only potential disrupters in our future, and air travel is far from the only aerospace infrastructure at risk. Business management expert Amir S. Gohardani says covid-19 has things to teach us about domino effects and resilience.


As the covid-19 pandemic unfolds, resulting in deaths and major financial burdens for many airlines in addition to industrywide project delays, furloughs and layoffs, the aerospace and defense sector needs to recognize and address the resulting disruptive forces, and prepare to be resilient against future disruptions caused by the next disease or other tumultuous event.

Consider an analogy from a field adjacent to aerospace technology: Specialists in computer security and related fields of cybersecurity and information technology security often log network disruptions caused, for example, by cyberattacks. Such disruptions can mean loss of revenue for a company or an organization. Other kinds of cyberattacks can involve data breaches or theft of intellectual property that play out without obvious disruption, but in the longer term these can tarnish a brand’s reputation and, at times, even threaten the very survival of a business or an organization. In 2018, the White House Council of Economic Advisers published a report estimating that malicious cyber activity cost the U.S. economy between $57 billion and $109 billion in 2016. Knowing the potential impacts of cyberattacks, wise organizations establish backup plans that detail the process for recovering information or getting systems operating again. Furthermore, a disaster recovery cost curve assists the stakeholders to identify an optimal disruption recovery plan in terms of cost and time. Organizations create business continuity plans, often utilizing a planning suite detailed in public forums by the Department of Homeland Security. Developed by DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Business Continuity Planning Suite software is intended for any business with the need to create, improve or update its business continuity plan. In short, in the face of attacks or disruptions, everyone seeks resilience.

The aerospace and defense sector can learn from these insights. Both kinds of disruptions trigger other events that can have negative consequences but sometimes positive ones too. High-profile cyber incidents have prompted the software industry to develop smart learning systems for cyberattack detection. That’s good, but on the other hand, such attacks can result in theft of intellectual property that can jeopardize U.S. national security objectives. Regarding the pandemic, here in the United States the flood of patients has exposed the dangers of relying on foreign suppliers for ventilators, masks and other equipment.

By having the lessons learned of aerospace history in mind and by embracing resilience with more rigor, corporations, government entities, policymakers and legislators can better prepare themselves for future disruptions with minimized losses in terms of human capital, financial capital and intellectual capital. In this context, loss reduction must be enabled through crafted methods and lines of action similar to the business continuity plans we see in the cyber sector. Such plans could also entail rerouting resources, products or services for optimized results under such dire circumstances.

Resilience planning could have helped authorities and the airlines make better use of aircraft, for instance. Many times during the pandemic, nearly empty planes have flown between destinations. The passengers were mainly health professionals embarking on their noble objective of saving lives, but flying a 200-passenger aircraft with a handful of passengers for these purposes was inefficient for all. Perhaps another arrangement could have been considered.

Another important concept is system resilience, the ability of a system to absorb changes and disturbances in the environment and maintain system functionality. A twin-engine aircraft with a skilled pilot aboard can, for example, experience an engine-out, and the pilot can land safely despite this disruption. Aviation authorities achieved this resilience in part by establishing ETOPS, short for the Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards certification process, which specifies the maximum distance in minutes an aircraft of a particular design should be permitted to fly from the nearest airport, thus ensuring that a one-engine emergency landing is always feasible.

Just as a twin-engine aircraft can be engineered for resilience, so can a complex socio-technical system. Resilience is a promising discipline for potentially identifying domino effects through a holistic lens and overcoming them with minimal harm. This discipline broadly includes dependencies among four key capabilities: responding, monitoring, learning and anticipating.

When the 1973 oil crisis hit, aeronautical researchers looked for technical solutions to offset the spikes in fuel prices. NASA researchers gained momentum in their research studies. Also, the Hamilton Standard division of United Technologies patented the propfan concept in 1979, while General Electric worked on unducted fans. Researchers explored a propfan concept that would offer the fuel economy of a turboprop with the speed and technical performance of a turbofan. Unducted fans and open rotor engines are variations of this concept. In short, a wealth of technical knowledge was surveyed and generated. This instance marked a positive domino effect and illustrates that the aerospace sector already has the knowledge base and capabilities associated with resilience engineering. But today, there is still room for improvement and out-of-the-box thinking.

Looking at air travel during the pandemic, in pace with growing health concerns, the global slowdown consistently has caused a market surplus of air passenger services. Interestingly, despite the global economic slowdown prompted by the pandemic and air freight volume plunging by almost 28% earlier this year, air cargo demand soared for personal protective equipment and other items manufactured in Asia for delivery in Europe and North America. Some airlines repurposed sections of their air fleets by removing the passenger seats and transformed passenger aircraft into air freighters. This example shows that organizations can address disruptions through planning and resilience. Though it would be impossible to predict every possible scenario or the exact impact of the pandemic, airlines can employ applied data analytics to a larger extent than before to consider alternative cases for optimal operations. Similarly, the aerospace and defense sector should work more rigorously to predict adverse domino effects by employing additional resources and engaging in greater information sharing across U.S. government entities to minimize adverse effects. The defense side of the sector sometimes does this in military simulations, more commonly known as war games. The pandemic should further be a wakeup call to instill resilience in light of two threats in particular: a collision in space that knocks out communications, GPS or other satellite-based services, and the advent of drones, potentially swarms of drones, and their threat as bioweapons.

Although it is debatable if history repeats itself, in terms of pandemics, at least exemplified by the 1918 flu pandemic, this is true. Treating each event against a historical backdrop can at times remain a reasonable method for getting prepared. In the words of Mark Twain: “A favorite theory of mine is that no occurrence is sole and solitary, but is merely a repetition of a thing which has happened before, and perhaps often.”

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Amir S. Gohardani

has a doctorate in aerospace engineering and teaches business management and strategy courses in Orange County, California. He is a co-founder of Springs of Dreams Corp., a nonprofit educational organization. An AIAA associate fellow, he is the chair of the institute’s Society and Aerospace Technology Outreach Committee.

Covid-19 proves importance of resilience planning