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Interview with ACARE chairman Peter F. Hartman (KLM-Air France), assisted by Ruben M. Ablas and Michiel Q. Laumans

Peter F. Hartman, chairman of ACARE and Vice-Chairman Air France KLM, evaluates the ACARE goals and long-term strategy, appraises the potential role of Academia on realizing these goals, as well as expresses his views on the new set-up of the Horizon2020 Programme.

Question 1

The chairman of ACARE is former CEO of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and is now Vice-Chairman Air France KLM, This is positive because operations account for more than 90% of the turnover in the aviation industry. Do you think that operators should be more engaged in in bigger European projects for achieving the ACARE goals, especially due to their abundant experience in real operations? If so, could this even mean a shift of research priorities seen the different "business cases" of OEM and operators, i.e. in maintenance?

The big traditional operators have always been engaged in research and innovation. Almost all procedures, guidelines, etc. related to maintenance, especially inspections, overhaul and repair are for a large part based on a pro-active approach by the operators, always in close partnership with the OEM's. I remember many discussions with General Electric, Boeing, Fokker and later Airbus on these issues, leading to fruitful collaborations. The traditional operators thus have an enormous expertise in R&D that finally contributes to the design and development of new aircraft and of course safety.

The different business models in the aviation industry are indeed sometimes an issue, potentially also in the context of research. A prominent example concerns jet engine maintenance where manufacturer offer significant discounts when you buy an engine, however combined with expensive maintenance contracts. Thus, outsourcing maintenance operations to OEM's is for airlines not necessarily a good decision.

With respect to bigger European projects, yes, an increased participation of operators with mixed, international consortia should be encouraged strongly because it represents an important expansion of their established R&D activities and partners from academia, SME, research organizations will share their experience with those from operators and OEM.

Consequently, the research priorities and resources provided by the European Research Area should in some way reflect the balance of the complimentary research interests and innovation needs of the different economic players in aviation.

Question 2

What is your opinion on the long-term strategy of ACARE. Time goes fast and some fundamental targets of Flightpath 2050 were already proposed a couple of years ago. Is there any indication that recent economic and technological developments might already require major modifications of the strategy.

The Flightpath 2050 document is a visionary document with real long term ambitions and should be used to derive challenges and hurdles to overcome. Currently there is no need to update the long term strategy, however we should not close our eyes for incidents and trend changes. New technological developments might trigger a review of the long term strategy and ambition, the same applies for new regulations such as the introduction of a global market base measure for CO2.

The terrible disappearance of MH370 is an example which shows that we should not only look at the long term goals. We just cannot accept that at the beginning of the 21st century, airplanes just disappear somewhere above the ocean without reliable technical means to trace them. A solution to this challenge can only be achieved by international collaborations and dedicated research.

Another example is the inconsistency in security regimes at airports within Europe. Depending on the airport, passengers are faced with different checks; there is not one standard which is applied. We see a high uniformity in technical standards. In contrast to that, security standards are enormously different, even between airports in one country. Passengers cannot understand why different security regulations apply at every airport.

A similar security-related issue is the increasing numbers of private drones. It is important to investigate the impact and potential threats to operations and means to detect possible accidents very early, together with the appropriate regulations. Another issue is the prevention of cyber-criminality, persons with portable devices potentially taking over airplanes during flight, concerning the technical possibilities this is nowadays probably less of a conspiracy theory than one might assume. In any case, we need to be prepared.

Concerning the most important ACARE goals, we must also be careful not to change some strategies too quickly, e.g. following short-term developments on the markets. The dramatic decline of oil prices could be misinterpreted as a signal to reconsider the reduction of fuel consumption or the development of biofuels as less urgent. We should not think like that, firstly because the price could/will rise again, secondly, oil is anyway an important raw material, also for other sectors.

In technical terms, I could imagine that new configurations of helicopter-like aircraft could attract more attention, as well as the development of hybrid technology, i.e. with e-taxiing. We are already going down the right track.


Question 3

There is essential research expertise available in the aviation industry, however, fundamental research on these topics is still mainly situated at academia. How would you see the prospective role of academia on realizing the ACARE goals?

Academia has and will continue to play an indispensable role in aviation research, also and especially for achieving the ambitious goals of ACARE in the long-term.

Also in the past, we have maintained excellent relationships with academia, such as with the universities of Delft and Rotterdam. An interesting avenue for collaborations is to invite students to internships in the industry. Another example is KLM's sponsorship of academic chairs for several years, such as the Chair for Gas Turbines in Delft.

Thus, the value of collaborations between industry and academia cannot be overestimated, especially because academia provides podia for interdisciplinary discussions sufficiently beyond economic competition and international borders. This is very inspiring for all parties involved.


Question 4

Since its creation in 2000, ACARE became an important stakeholder for the aviation community in Europe, also with respect to e.g. the advisory councils (ETP) of other transport modes. Do you think that the relationships with the other stakeholders concerning acceptance, communication, joint projects etc., etc. has already reached a satisfying level, and if not, what needs to be done in the future?

The collaboration between the different stakeholders such as aviation industry, member states, research organisations and academia works quite well at the moment, one could even argue that there should not be too many new, additional elements and events with respect to networking in order to maintain efficiency.

But there is indeed at least one point of concern, we must avoid a "pillarization" of competences and structures, in the sense that there should be no closed groups with their own agendas. It is thus important to position ourselves as a very open community that wants to collaborate closely with stakeholders from other sectors. Not only other transport modes, but also completely different industries like ICT and robotics, health care and energy, academia, industry, authorities etc... to really achieve optimum synergy effects for creating jobs and to further develop the European Research Area.


Question 5

H2020 started with a budget of about 80 Billion Euro compared to 50 Billion available in FP7, the budget for transport however, especially aeronautics was almost not increased, probably due to the political misperception that transport as such is not a main priority compared to e.g. ICT or Life Science. Do we have a "lobbying problem" in "Brussels" concerning transport-related science and innovation topics? And if so, what could be done to improve that situation?

In this context, one should not forget the enormous leverage effect of aviation for other parts of society with respect to individual mobility, resilient transport infrastructures, job creation etc. Traditional airlines offer worldwide connections which generate important economic input and their operations generate long term employment in Europe. This effect is often underestimated or even ignored. Your statement that the transport community lacks lobbying power might be correct and there might be different reasons.

Besides the potential loss of share in research funding, there is another important concern requiring our attention when talking about our relation to policy makers and regulators, also in the context of research and innovation. It is barely known that many airlines generate only very low profit margins and due to European regulations the market conditions for traditional airlines are very harsh at the moment. They allow free competition between traditional European airlines and a number of carriers from beyond Europe with more favorable regulatory frameworks. In our opinion this leads to a distortion of competition. Canada is a good example, the government did not accept the conditions these new partners tried to impose on them, so they decided to partially protect Canadian operators from this market distortion and it appears that this was not such a bad decision.

The different set-up of Horizon 2020 compared to the 7th Framework Programme impacts the available budget as well. There are opportunities to participate in other areas of the Horizon 2020 Programme, but we often forget to look outside our own sector.


Question 6

Research and innovation in aviation guided by the ACARE goals, provides and will provide top-results for leading-edge technologies in general which - this is highly important! - also contributes to the development of other sectors of e.g. material science, materials testing or aerodynamics. Should this pioneering function be more recognized and emphasized when e.g. funding from European and national programmes is requested?

In my opinion, this pioneering function does not exist in general, there are surely some topics where aviation provides the cutting-edge solution, but we should not forget that aviation is also enormously influenced by the development in other sectors, thus, the transfer of high-end technology is never a one-way street.

For instance, on the technical side, we have learned a lot from space technology and also ICT technology is highly important, leading e.g. to the implementation of robotics in luggage handling. Also in the case of passenger comfort, health on board, etc there are many different contributing disciplines that need close collaboration and most of all, a holistic view on the system.

Question 7

The achievement of the ACARE goals requires highly-skilled engineers and scientists. How would you evaluate the quality of the corresponding aviation-related education in Europe, keeping in mind that the thorough "canonical" education at academia can't anyway prepare students for all tasks relevant in practice?

I look at this topic from the perspective of an operator. An OEM or research organizations might think differently. In my opinion, we do not see major problems with respect to education of skilled staff for operations in aviation, such as for air traffic management or maintenance.

In our case, important parts of the required expertise must come from the employers, so universities do not need to take over responsibilities just to relieve industry from educational tasks. However, academic education needs to provide a real solid foundation. It would not make sense e.g. that industry teaches new employees the basics of higher mathematics. Most important is that both parties are always in close contact to know their different needs and possibilities.

As mentioned above, the specific value of academia for the industry, in education and research in general, is its interdisciplinary and international character, especially when students from different nations learn and research together. We also appreciate that the international academic networks gradually extend; European universities even create campuses in the Far East.

Finally, not to forget, education does not only mean technically teaching and training young people, there is also a societal aspect, as we are obliged to operate as socially-responsible companies. Proper education should also include social skills, irrespective whether the student develops into a generalist or a specialist.


Question 8

Some industrial sectors started shifting their research capabilities to low-cost countries on a large scale, finally leading to a creeping loss of research facilities, expertise and employment in Europe. Do you also see this as a potential danger for the European aviation academia and industry, potentially challenging the achievements of the ACARE goals? If yes, what we can do to stop this process without developing Europe to a low-cost area in research too?

The discussion exists, but one should not reduce the arguments solely to the cost aspect. I know global players in high-end technologies that went to China to create facilities for product development already some years ago; and the major reason was not cost. There, they just found more highly-skilled, and highly-motivated engineers. It is commonly known that the number of engineers in some Western countries has seen a dramatic decay, and it is sometimes just difficult to find enough excellent people for certain ambitious projects.

Another important argument for creating research facilities abroad is that these countries also represent big markets. It is thus logical and also a little bit fair that these communities also have a share in the corresponding R&D business.

On the other hand, I also see that the numbers of students in natural and engineering sciences in Western countries is increasing again and this will also be reflected in the world of R&D.

Besides the positive arguments for shifting resources to other economic areas, there are also some critical remarks to make, last but not least because of the general risk of losing expertise and intellectual property. By the way, shifting of operational tasks can even challenge the resilience of the air traffic system, especially if we see how fast political instability can develop in some of those countries, if e.g. an outsourced system without proper back-up is broken, what will happen in the frame of resilient air traffic?

Question 9

Politicians sometimes complain that Europe is strong when developing money into knowledge, but it often fails when knowledge needs to be turned into money and jobs. Other (more silent) voices disagree based on the proven experience that you always need to start with a sufficiently high number of very good, already developed concepts before you can select the most economically successful technologies (even in Silicon Valley it is accepted that 90% of all start-ups fail, a barely known fact).  Do you also think that unrealistic expectations concerning the naturally-low success rate of innovation might cause problems, especially i) if innovation would be unfairly evaluated and ii) if research-funding would focus too much on only a few, relatively risk-free, pre-selected "mainstream" concepts?

Yes, the impatience of some stakeholders concerning a slow return on investment is a fact, and one of the reasons is that tax payers demand from politics to create jobs here and now. The question is, how to respond. One should also keep in mind that the situation is most probably different in academia and industry.

Avoiding risks by following the mainstream is indeed not always a good option. If you want to make a difference in business, you must really dare to think "out of the box" which requires leaving the main stream with new products with a real unique selling proposition. In this way, the market forces you to take the necessary risks automatically. You have to accept that some innovations will fail on its way to market, just because it is all in all very difficult to assess the success rate of a new technology properly in advance.

Another issue that prevents real innovation is that some regulations contradict themselves. A famous example; the EU REACH regulation which requires the replacement of chromates for corrosion prevention in fuselage coatings. The strict EASA rules for safety and risk mitigation on the other hand force us to use chromates to prevent corrosion. Research did not yet provide adequate alternatives, leaving us with a conflict that needs to be resolved.


Date posted: February 24, 2015, 3:14 pm

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