Ep: 6 Piloting Through the Pandemic

Eric Schmidt
September 29, 2020
41
 MIN
Listen this episode on your favorite platform!
September 29, 2020
41
 MIN

Ep: 6 Piloting Through the Pandemic

Air travel has made our world more physically connected than ever. But, that could change because, for airlines, the pandemic is an existential threat.

Former Airbus CEO, Tom Enders, and "Miracle on the Hudson" pilot, Captain Sully Sullenberger, discuss how the industry can weather COVID-19, what it will take to make flying safe again for everyone, and what the medical profession can learn from aviation safety.

Episode Transcript

Tom Enders (00:00):

You ask how long will it take? Well, there are, as always, positive scenarios and less optimistic scenarios, let's put it that way. But most people expect that it will take at least until 2022, 2023 until we are back to the level of air traffic of 2019.

Eric Schmidt (00:24):

The coronavirus pandemic is a global tragedy, but it's also an opportunity to rethink the world, to make it better faster for more people than ever before. I'm Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and now co-founder of Schmidt Futures. This is Reimagine, a podcast where trailblazing leaders imagine how we can build back better. COVID has pummeled many industries, but one of the most impacted has been aviation. On this episode of Reimagine, we'll take a look at the future of air travel. Of course, this is not the airline industry's first encounter with disaster. From mechanical failures and pilot errors to even terrorism, industry leaders have constantly sought to minimize risk and keep it flying.

Eric Schmidt (01:26):

Perfectionism is the hallmark of aviation, and it's the reason why flying is far safer than almost any other mode of travel. COVID, on the other hand, has been a stunning calamity. The death toll in the United States in mid-September 2020 is the equivalent of approximately 900 downed passenger 747s. Like so many things, aviation will have to change post-COVID.

Eric Schmidt (01:54):

Our guest today is Tom Enders. For seven years from 2012 to 2019, Tom was the Chief Executive at Airbus, the world's largest airline manufacturer. He's recently retired and has now joined the board of Lufthansa. I can say from personal experience, under his leadership Airbus built one of the best airplanes I've ever flown. Tom has years of experience with the day-to-day realities of building and distributing planes around the world, so I'm excited to spend our time exploring what manufacturers and airlines can and should do to keep the industry afloat and our passengers safe. Tom, very much welcome.

Tom Enders (02:30):

Thank you, Eric. Thank you.

Eric Schmidt (02:31):

The real question today is airplanes and safe travel in a world of COVID. Is flying on an Airbus commercial airliner safe today?

Tom Enders (02:43):

I wouldn't make a difference here between Boeing and Airbus aircraft. All these aircraft are equipped with high efficiency filter systems, and both are highly effective. Does that mean that you're 100% safe on any flight? I wouldn't go that far. But so far I think there's not been many cases where COVID-19 cases could be tracked down to airline flights. However, it is virtually impossible to apply the same rules we apply in normal life in restaurants and elsewhere to aircraft, because people will inevitably sit closer, even if they have to wear masks and stuff like that. But yes, I think in today's modern aircraft with these high efficiency filters, traveling is fairly safe.

Eric Schmidt (03:36):

When do you think that the airline industry will recover? Do you think that it's the government's job to open up? Do you think people will stay away out of a fear, even misplaced?

Tom Enders (03:50):

We do expect, Eric, that this will be the most hit industry and the last one that will really recover from this hit. One of the things, that we probably will see a big reduction of business class passengers. All over the world in airlines, business class passengers are the ones that are particularly important for the profits of airlines, simply because they have a choice. There's been a lot of practice now with videoconferencing, with other online conferencing, and I think these particular passengers that are so vitally important for the profitability of airlines will be more hesitant to come back than the typical tourist. That means that airlines will have to look into ways and means to attract these passengers particularly. Manufacturers will have to see how they can further improve filtering techniques, how they can perhaps shield some passengers. Plexiglas, stuff like that has been considered.

Tom Enders (05:03):

But also airports need to be part of the solution. It's not just manufacturers or airlines or airports. All three elements have to work together to bring the air traffic back. If you ask how long will it take, well, there are, as always, positive scenarios and less optimistic scenarios, let's put it that way. But most people expect that it will take at least until 2022, 2023 until we are back to the level of air traffic of 2019.

Eric Schmidt (05:38):

Could you standardize things more in the way you do things, the way the rules work, to increase the confidence that passengers have to get on an airplane?

Tom Enders (05:49):

Well, I think right now, following that from outside, the first priority must be that we really arrive at internationally agreed rules for getting back into the air, and the rules how passengers have to be treated, how they have to behave on airlines, et cetera. I think the first victory for the airlines, which was vitally important for them, is to avoid fooling with vacant middle seats. Of course, that would have meant that they can't fill the aircraft enough to be profitable. You need normally 70, 75% or more seats covered to be profitable, the so-called load factor. But I understand there's a lot of stuff that hasn't been agreed on, and for the international air traffic to function seamlessly, as it almost did before COVID-19, it's widely important we have the same rules all over the place.

Eric Schmidt (06:53):

I think it's doubly tragic, because the commercial airline industry, of which you're one of the great leaders, has been remarkably safe over the last 20 years. A simple statistic is that it's more dangerous to drive to the airport than it is to fly from the airport. So it seems totally unfair to the airline industry and the aircraft industry to have to deal with this, but nevertheless, here we are.

Tom Enders (07:19):

Yep. When we talked about safety in the past, Eric, we meant technical safety. How safe is it to fly? How safe is it not to have any tragical accidents? Which happened very rarely, as we know. But now safety has an entirely different meaning with this pandemic.

Eric Schmidt (07:40):

Now, you're no longer the CEO and Chairman of Airbus, but I noticed that both Boeing and Airbus have been forced to do layoffs. Boeing has announced that they're not going to do any new development for a while. What will the manufacturers do in the next few years? Will they further constrict? Will they reduce their manufacturing lines further? Will they go to a smaller number of lines? What will they do in two years? It'll take two years according to your view for this to recover in this long cycle here.

Tom Enders (08:17):

Yeah. Well, this, as you say, is just my personal view, and I'm no longer one of the decision-makers. But I think first thing is, they have to cut back on capacity. That is obvious. In 2019, I think both Boeing and Airbus delivered between 800 and 900 aircraft each, large commercial aircraft. Obviously, there is no market, there is no demand for that anymore. They are subsequently cutting back their production. 30% has been announced by Airbus, for instance, but they probably have to cut back even further, because different from the financial crisis that we had back in 2008-9, remember the Lehman crisis or post-Lehman crisis, where America and Europe were hit hard but the Middle East and particularly Asia was doing fairly well, and we still had demand for new aircraft deliveries in these regions.

Tom Enders (09:18):

Different from that today, almost all the world airlines have no appetite of taking new aircraft, even if they have firm orders with the aircraft manufacturers. So right now, the sales departments of the aircraft manufacturers are entirely or almost entirely busy with renegotiating contracts, postponing deliveries, et cetera, rather than finding new customers for their aircraft. So the order of the day is really to cut back on capacity, at least for a few years.

Tom Enders (09:53):

But here comes a particular challenge, Eric, and that is the supply chain. The typical large commercial aircraft, take Airbus, I don't think the Boeing numbers will be much different, 70% of the value added is with the supply chains, not with the manufacturer. A lot of these companies are small companies that are financially fragile, et cetera, so that's a particular challenge that people sometimes forget when they talk about Boeing and Airbus cutting back on production. Yes, this is one thing, the assembly and all that, but the more difficult task, I think, is to keep a healthy supply chain.

Eric Schmidt (10:34):

One estimate was that the United States airlines were losing $50 million a day, because they had to park so many airplanes. And the airline industry is characterized by high regulatory structures, high fixed costs, very high debt ratios. How will the airlines that are not government-owned get through this one- or two-year period without going bankrupt?

Tom Enders (11:03):

Well, some will inevitably go bankrupt. We might see in some regions more consolidation happen. We will see more airlines becoming partially nationalized, which is not a good development, which could also then lead to the industry becoming more politicized by the government owners, something we've seen before. That would not necessarily work towards more international cooperation, globalization, et cetera. Last 20 years, a lot of airlines were privatized. 20, 25 years, a lot of airlines were privatized. Lufthansa, for instance, was privatized back in '97. Was very successful from there on. And now more and more airlines will be nationalized again.

Eric Schmidt (11:58):

Will prices go up? Any idea how much? How do we deal with the inequality that that implies?

Tom Enders (12:08):

Yeah, that's a good point. I think short term, prices will not go up, might be even lower than before, because the airlines are desperate to convince customers to come back and fly. And because we have overcapacity right now as the airlines slowly restart flying. Mid-term, I think prices will come up, probably have to come up, particularly we assume that the business travel will not come back 100% as it was before, and that maybe the airlines are even forced to implement certain structural and other procedures on their aircraft for better safety, pandemic safety, et cetera, which will also cost a lot, in an industry that has not been terribly profitable over the years, as you know. With some exceptions, but more or less, it is not a terribly profitable industry that can really absorb additional expenses.

Eric Schmidt (13:17):

Tom, during your leadership you were able to raise an enormous amount of capital, and the level of innovation at Airbus, and I think among your competitors, was phenomenal, especially the adoption of carbon fiber, new energy efficiency standards, development of new wings, and that sort of thing. With so little capital available, what will be exciting and what will be pushed off in your industry?

Tom Enders (13:44):

Well, that's a very important point, because when the big OEMs, the manufacturers, cut back their capacities, lay off people, et cetera, they inevitably lose skills. They lose financial means. The future competition will be largely shaped right now by which choices they make, in terms of innovation or innovative technologies that they keep and technologies that they skip. I very much hope that they keep the core innovations. I'm very excited, I was already when I still was CEO, about the possibilities of electrical or hybrid electrical or maybe hydrogen propulsion in the future. Very excited about the possibilities of applying advanced data analytics, artificial intelligence and yes, not least, quantum computing, which could very much accelerate design processes, development processes, et cetera, et cetera. I would hope that the industry safeguards these essential technologies for tomorrow.

Tom Enders (15:01):

I mean, China is just around the corner. It's not been easy for the Chinese to catch up with Airbus and Boeing, but they have now programs ongoing, and they will certainly seek to jump into that and take advantage of it. But there's another thing. If I think about space, Eric, 10 years ago people would laugh if you would tell them that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk would be the new dominating forces in the international space arena. This is also a time for companies like those, like Bezos and Musk and others who have the means, to invest heavily into modern aeronautics. There's a chance here as well, as well as a risk for the traditional OEMs.

Eric Schmidt (15:49):

Tom, you've had an enormous impact on all of our lives with the things that you have built and the products that you all delivered in your many, many decades of career. Thank you so much.

Tom Enders (16:00):

Pleasure. You're exaggerating, Eric, but a pleasure talking to you as always. Being in aeronautics, as you know, means you have to be an eternal optimist. So I would like to say at the end that even though times are hard and it may take some years for the industry to recover, I cannot imagine that humanity will forego the possibilities that exist that lie in flying and modern aviation. As Bill Gates once said some years ago, "International air traffic was the first World Wide Web," and we should not forget that. That's not a small thing for all of us.

Eric Schmidt (16:39):

I started flying small planes, and now jets and helicopters, because I needed a hobby that I could do while I was working. And because I was traveling all the time, I could get everything done. I could work, I could fly, I could enjoy myself in a given day. But I learned something. I learned something about managing large, complicated systems of people, because of the inherent safety of where airlines are today. The rules that I was taught existed because every rule was needed, because someone had crashed or died due to the lack of that rule. So I understood the power of intelligent regulation.

Eric Schmidt (17:12):

I also understood the power of repeated training and checklists and procedures to keep everybody when they're operating in synchrony honest and on-target. I learned that in addition to just depending on the intelligence of people, there were things that had to be repeated, and that people had to learn them in such a way that they were safe. The aviation industry is so regulated that it's very difficult to see how they're going to get through this crisis. After all, they have very high capital costs, they have very high training costs, their employees are unionized, with all sorts of rules that are complicated involving seniority.

Eric Schmidt (17:50):

And indeed, many of the jobs were kept because of special programs as part of the transition pandemic relief. Those expire in early October, leading to the layoffs and furloughing of tens of thousands of airline professionals that we've historically depended on. The airline industry, when it comes back, will come back smaller, but I don't think it's going to be any less regulated. If anything, it's going to become more regulated, and that regulation will make it even harder for the airlines to have any kind of flexibility.

Eric Schmidt (18:22):

Joining us now is pilot, safety expert, and author, Captain Sully Sullenberger. In 2009, shortly after taking off from LaGuardia in New York City, US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese, causing the plane to lose engine power. I watched the video which was recreated of the flight, and listened to the audio, and there's nothing more terrifying than spending that minute imagining what they faced. Sully, with his copilot Jeff Skiles, averted disaster by steering the jetliner just a few hundred feet above the George Washington Bridge and landing in the Hudson River. All 155 people aboard survived. What an accomplishment.

Eric Schmidt (19:10):

While this singular act of heroism is what brought him fame, Sully has also had a long career focused on aviation safety. He was a local chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association and helped create an FAA advisory circular. Captain Sully, thank you for being with me today and all you have done for us.

Sully Sullenberger (19:29):

Thank you, Eric.

Eric Schmidt (19:30):

Everyone I know is very concerned about the effect of the pandemic on the aviation industry. What worries you most about what's happening right now, and what's at stake if we don't get aviation through it?

Sully Sullenberger (19:43):

Well, I'm very concerned about all the people who are being affected in so many different ways by COVID-19. We're all being affected in some way, some much more than others. We're all making some sacrifices or at least facing some inconvenience. Some are giving a little, but some have lost everything. My heart also goes out, of course, to all the medical professionals, the doctors, the nurses, all the staff, who are working long hours in very difficult situations. It's probably tantamount to being in a war zone, with the overwhelming numbers of patients in some cases at some times in this crisis.

Sully Sullenberger (20:28):

Like every crisis, this crisis demands effective leadership, and it demands effective, not only national but international, leadership. That's one of the great failures of the response so far, is that it's been left up to others other than the national leadership, for the most part, state and local officials, to individual people to fill that void, that vacuum of leadership. And of course, it's cost us. Recent studies have shown that if we had begun keeping people at home even a week or two earlier, it would have saved tens of thousands of American lives. So what's happened has been a national tragedy, and in some cases a national disgrace.

Sully Sullenberger (21:17):

It's also, of course, as you mentioned, affected the airlines greatly. Airline employees have been hard hit, and they're on the front lines too, in a similar way to some medical professionals. Certainly the flight attendants in the cabin are being the first line of defense to keep us all safe. One of the biggest failures so far in terms of our air transportation system is that in this country, we have never had a federal face covering mandate, in spite of the fact that many have been calling for that. And that would have been one of the most effective things that we could do.

Sully Sullenberger (21:50):

Instead, individual airlines are having to come up with their own policies and procedures and to try to encourage the flight attendants to be the cop on the beat and to enforce these requirements that are really very basic. I mean, it's really the minimum that any of us can do, is to not actively harm each other. It really disturbs me greatly, the extent to which, for this whole episode, unlike any other crisis we've had in our nation's history, these basic safety requirements have become so extremely politicized and an extension of an ongoing culture war. And that has done and continues to do great harm. We have acquired the data to know what works and what doesn't, where the relative risks are, and begin to take effective steps to mitigate each part of the process.

Sully Sullenberger (22:46):

You see, there's not one silver bullet that will solve the whole problem. Instead, we must rely upon a whole panoply of individual actions that, in aggregate, can make us all safer. And these need to be consistently applied everywhere across the board, so that when passengers begin their travel and they first get to the airport, they know exactly what they must do.

Eric Schmidt (23:09):

You and I both know that human behavior on airlines is highly regulated. Pilots are required to wear masks above 35,000 feet and continuously above 40,000 feet. There are enormous numbers of safety restrictions. Why would the FAA not have assumed that the safety of passengers was part of their remit? Why would the FAA not have jumped in with some kind of emergency rule, as they might have had there been a crash?

Sully Sullenberger (23:39):

Well, you'll have to ask the current FAA administrator why, and ask the administration why. Ask the secretary of transportation why. Those are questions I would love to hear the answers to. I don't know what their answers would be, but in my opinion, they couldn't be good enough to justify the current situation. As you just mentioned, even in automobiles, we have to wear seat belts. We have to stop at stop signs and red lights. Those are basic civic behaviors that we owe to each other as citizens, and if we didn't, occasionally at least, put our own immediate needs aside and delay our gratification and give each other these little gifts of civic behavior, civilization wouldn't be possible.

Sully Sullenberger (24:27):

If we have to wear seat belts on the airplane and we have to keep our seat backs and tray tables upright and stowed for takeoff and landing, and if we have to do other things that are important, not only for our safety but for the safety of those around us, then why in the world would we not wear a mask to keep from spreading a potentially deadly virus? It just doesn't make sense.

Eric Schmidt (24:51):

Today, when you get on an airplane as a passenger, how do you calculate the risks on that airplane? You're going to be wearing a mask. I presume you'll be wearing gloves. You'll be careful about using the restroom. You won't congregate in the terminal unnecessarily. Is it safe?

Sully Sullenberger (25:11):

There's a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, that has done a study about the relative risk of being on an airplane, and it's really interesting what he has found. He has found that there is a risk, although it's not terribly large, that one can acquire COVID-19 from exposure on an airplane in flight. What he also found is that if middle seats are kept unoccupied, the risk of contracting COVID is approximately half that if all the seats are fully occupied. So we need to have much better data about how much risk there is and about which mitigations are most effective. And I'll tell you, I'm going to fly on an airplane where the middle seats are kept empty, knowing that my chances of catching COVID are half that if the middle seat were filled.

Eric Schmidt (26:06):

How will the airline industry get through the next year or two, given the inconsistent federal government guidance, the genuine safety concerns, and the ones that are faulty? Especially given that airline flying has generally been incredibly safe over the lifetime of you as a captain for us.

Sully Sullenberger (26:27):

Air travel has become ultra-safe, something I wouldn't have thought possible 35 or 40 years ago. Airline accidents now are very rare. But we must keep on making investments to keep it either that safe or getting safer. Investments in people, in systems, in technology. We must keep on providing human development for all our employees, continuous learning, constant striving for excellence. That's what's required to keep aviation safe and getting safer.

Sully Sullenberger (26:59):

It's going to be very difficult without effective national and international leadership for the airlines to survive financially in this environment. But we must make sure that we realize that our future success depends on the choices we make now. It's important that we not waste the time that we have while many people are not traveling, to take steps now when a lot of airplanes are grounded and maintenance and adjustments could be made, to, when people do return to flying, make it safer for them. Already airlines are getting to park and stop using the older, less fuel-efficient airplanes, and of course, that's important not just for financial health of the airlines but for what we're facing now, the very obvious and becoming more obvious by the day global effects on each of us of climate change. Again, it's not going to be one magic bullet that'll solve the problem, it'll be a variety, a whole panoply of efforts that together will make a difference.

Sully Sullenberger (28:02):

As far as the airline operations themselves, we need to rethink the lavatories. That's another possible source of contact with COVID. Better airflow, better filtering, more touch-free operation of faucets, of soap dispensers, possibly air-driven hand dryers. All those things together would help.

Eric Schmidt (28:25):

After an airplane accident occurs, which is fortunately rare, the NTSB investigates and provides recommendations to make things safer, and it's had a huge impact on increasing confidence in air travel. It's interesting that the NTSB is separate from the operating authority of the FAA and the other aspects of our government. It's, if you will, an honest broker. What do you think public health could learn about this? You've been critical of how public health works, and we both know that the NTSB has been very effective as a model for aviation.

Sully Sullenberger (29:01):

It helps that we have national standards and international standards in aviation that are widely adopted. Medicine is, unfortunately, more fragmented. And I think we also need to realize that medical professionals are as dedicated and professional as in any profession, but they haven't been given all the knowledge, the tools, the human team skills, leadership skills that we have, in addition to their clinical or medical skills. I think that's a huge need.

Sully Sullenberger (29:33):

There's also a great variance in how people approach the job. It's done in a more individual way, with less standardization. Now, medical professionals will also tell you that the human body is a much more complex system than any aircraft, but there are some similarities, some analogs that we can apply. I think one of the first things we have to do, in not only medicine but other safety-critical domains, and as has begun to be done in aviation, the chemical industry, manufacturing and others, is to change the way we think about harm.

Sully Sullenberger (30:11):

I think that are still too many in medicine who look upon harm in medical practice as being the unavoidable consequence of providing care. Coming from an aviation background, I think I would recommend that they not look upon these medical accidents that now are the third leading cause of death in the United States, estimates are 100,000 to 200,000 preventable medical deaths a year in this country alone, not because of individual mistakes but because of system problems, of latent conditions that have not been addressed, the lack of standardization, not having an effective culture where a nurse or a technician would feel psychologically safe to approach a senior surgeon with a safety issue and know that he or she would be heard and that effective action would be taken in a timely fashion, as would typically happen in aviation.

Sully Sullenberger (31:12):

We need to think about these deaths as not unavoidable but that as unthinkable, and approach every day knowing that it is our attitudes and our behavior that will determine how many medical accidents are going to happen in this country, and work together to solve them.

Eric Schmidt (31:33):

You served our nation with great courage, I think, in the Air Force and obviously worked commercially very successfully as a safety pilot as well as the historical flight. You have spoken out about the president's comments about the military. Tell us what you said.

Sully Sullenberger (31:52):

Like many veterans, like many Americans, I was not surprised but I was disgusted by the remarks that have been attributed to the current occupant of the Oval Office. I think that those remarks are consistent with similar remarks he's made previously about people like the late Senator John McCain and others, about Gold Star Families. And so I said as a veteran, we need to demand of our public officials more than that. You know, everyone who joins the military takes an oath of office. When I graduated from the Air Force Academy, I took that oath of office to become commissioned as an Air Force officer and a fighter pilot. I still remember the oath. I could recite it now.

Sully Sullenberger (32:42):

And it was not just a promise that I could decide whether or not to keep. That oath was a sacred, solemn vow that I swore and my compatriots swore to uphold at the cost of our lives if necessary. Our elected officials take a similar oath, and we must expect them and demand that they uphold their oaths, and when they don't, we must hold them accountable. And so I said this particular occupant of the office has failed to uphold his oath. For the first time in American history, he has denigrated those who have served and those who have given their life in service to our nation. Because of that, we owe it not only to everyone who has served and those who have sacrificed for this nation, but to ourselves and to our future generations, to vote him out.

Eric Schmidt (33:44):

I was interested that you wrote a New York Times op-ed on something I didn't know about. You were very concerned about children who stutter. You and Vice President Biden have both faced challenges due to stuttering, and you were upset about a particular treatment of the Vice President and his stuttering problem. What did you say in your op-ed?

Sully Sullenberger (34:07):

I first learned about what was said about Vice President Biden, essentially mocking him for having a speech disorder, and I've never liked bullies or bullying, and I felt an obligation as someone who now has a greater voice, a bully pulpit, to use that bully pulpit for good, to speak out on behalf of not only the Vice President, who had been mocked very publicly, but for anyone who has a speech disorder. So I made a choice to talk about something I'd never talked about in public before, and that is, as a very young child, I did stutter. I had a hard time getting the words out. My mind raced faster than my words could come out. I never received any speech therapy, but through years of hard work and focus, I eventually learned how to cope and to overcome.

Sully Sullenberger (35:04):

The amazing part is, now I'm a successful public speaker. So the fact that I stuttered as a young child did not prevent me from becoming a successful Air Force fighter pilot or a successful airline pilot and captain or a public speaker. And so I wrote about that experience in very personal terms. I talked about how in this current culture of cruelty, sometimes there are no norms. All the norms and expectations that our democracy depends upon seem to have been weakened or discarded, including some of our institutions being damage. I used this opportunity to write in The New York Times that we owe each other as citizens more than that, to be civil. And when we make important decisions, we must make them based on facts, not fears or falsehoods or someone being mocked.

Sully Sullenberger (36:00):

I called them out in a very direct public way, and I said, "Grow up. Show some decency." I said, "One of the things I've learned in my life is that our imperfections are not what defines us. Our character is." To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I hoped at the end of my life that I would have been evaluated on the quality of my ideas and the content of my character. I also said, "It's easier to treat a speech disorder than it is a character defect."

Eric Schmidt (36:37):

It's interesting. I just looked it up. You said, "So to every child who feels today what I felt after hearing these cruel remarks by an adult who should know better, here is what I want you to know. You are fine just as you are."

Sully Sullenberger (36:53):

Yes. And if you work hard, you can achieve almost anything you can imagine. The sky is the limit. Take it from me.

Eric Schmidt (37:05):

Captain Sully, thank you for everything you've done so far and all the amazing things you'll do to make our world safer and better.

Sully Sullenberger (37:12):

Eric, it's good speaking with you, and I can tell you, I'm not done yet.

Eric Schmidt (37:19):

The best line ever, "I'm not done yet." Thank you again.

Sully Sullenberger (37:23):

Thank you.

Eric Schmidt (37:28):

So where are we now? COVID has flipped the world upside down for airlines, limiting how we travel and cutting our sense of connectedness to one another. It's perhaps the greatest setback that aviation has ever faced. The airline industry is no stranger to difficult moments. Through technology and innovation, as well as sound regulation and oversight, I do believe air travel will survive, even if we don't yet exactly know how. There are many ways where we could make the airline industry more efficient.

Eric Schmidt (37:58):

One of the most obvious ones is to redo and rethink the way we route our airplanes in the sky. In addition to saving up to 9% aviation fuel and people's time, it also would change something that people may not be aware of. When you're flying, you're actually flying on a series of waypoints, and those waypoints were established in the 1920s. Those waypoints were established based on Native American signaling sites, where they literally would make fires so that you could see from mountaintop to mountaintop. When you fly across the country today, you can be quite sure that you're following a path set out by our Native American friends.

Eric Schmidt (38:40):

Technology will be increasingly important for the airline industry. Advances in artificial intelligence and data analytics should be applied to make air travel more economical, secure, and sanitary. For me the question is, how quickly could we evolve the airline industry if we had more modern concepts, if we had the equivalent of Elon Musk and Tesla applied to the airline industry? At no time in human history have we been as connected as we are today, both digitally and through things like the internet, but also physically through global supply chains and almost seamless international travel. It's just hard to imagine modern life without the kind of international and domestic travel that we've become used to.

Eric Schmidt (39:21):

When I think about the economic impact of COVID and the pandemic, I start by imagining the fact that all those airplanes full of international travelers that would come from China and from Europe, for example, to New York City through JFK are not on Madison Avenue. And those stores are critically dependent upon the dollars spent by those tourists. There must be example after example where the interconnection that the airline industry has made possible is fundamental to economic growth. We ignore this issue at our peril.

Eric Schmidt (39:54):

What we should have done is we should have recognized how critically important the airline industry was sooner than we did, put in universal mask wearing and other guidelines to make people feel more comfortable, and get people on airplanes. We're focused on people getting back to work, a good thing. Let's focus on getting them back on airplanes too. That resilience and humility in the face of grave difficulty is a hallmark of an industry that has forever changed how we live and move about the world. Today we stand with pilots and flight attendants in our desire to reimagine this world as a safer, healthier, and more connected one.

Eric Schmidt (40:29):

Next week we're heading back to school to reimagine the future of education with philanthropist Asheesh Dewan and economist Aniah Francis.

Asheesh Dewan (40:37):

Whilst India has great talent at the top, and the numbers are so large that even the top 1% or 5% are noticeable, I think what you see is the tip of the iceberg. And really, underneath there's that 75% who are perpetually sort of left behind. And the COVID crisis only made it worse for them.