High profile guests discuss future of airline industry

Sean Lavery

Several aviation industry leaders, including the president and CEO of United Airlines, descended on Northwestern’s campus Tuesday and discussed their views on flight safety, prospects for industry growth in the future and infrastructure development.

The afternoon event was hosted by the McCormick School of Engineering at the McCormick Auditorium in the James L. Allen Center.

Marketers, politicians, professors and engineers offered insight into the business of flight to more than 100 attendees during the all-day event called the “NU Transportation Center Symposium: The Future for Aviation”.

The subject of safety loomed large over the presentation, following a week of media coverage scrutinizing Boeing’s 737 jets and the discovery of remnants from Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009.

TECOP International, Inc. owner and President Hans Weber promoted the use of composite materials in new, upcoming jets. John B. Maggiore, program manager of Airplane Health Management, described a preventative maintenance system Boeing is incorporating into their aircraft, but he declined to comment on competitor Airbus’s handling of the Air France Flight 447 crash.

McCormick Prof. Jan D. Achenbach offered his assessment about an in-flight scare aboard a Southwest Boeing 737 jet last week, when a crack ruptured the fuselage and rapidly decompressed the passenger cabin. Achenbach compared the near-disaster to an incident known as the “Aloha Accident” in 1988 that left one flight attendant dead after the roof ruptured mid-flight.

“Luckily there was a good pilot and a strong plane,” Achenbach said.

President and CEO of United Airlines Jeff Smisek headlined the featured lecture later in the evening. Smisek delved into his time at Continental Airlines before discussing business strategy in the modern airline industry.

“You have to have a strong international presence,” Smisek said. “Any part of the small (profit) margin we make comes from foreign countries, because it’s almost impossible to make money in the United States.”

Carl Asmus, vice president of International Market Development at FedEx, agreed that most aviation-related growth is occurring in “emerging markets,” led mostly by Asian countries.

Asmus said the international air freight industry began recovering in late 2009, preceding much of slow economic repair the US has achieved since the worst of the global recession. He said the recent threat of higher oil prices could spell disaster for the state of the recovering global economy.

“Sustained price increases, I think, are a huge threat,” Asmus said. “You start to talk about $125 to $135 a barrel, I think that would be damaging to the economy.”

While China has been a huge source of growth for FedEx, Asmus said policy changes were being placed to combat inflation in the country.

“The cost of doing business in China is going up,” he said.

Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino divulged her vision for the future of Chicago airports. O’Hare International Airport is part-way through an $8 billion modernization project, the scale of which Andolino said is one of the largest in the world.

“We want to bring Chicago into our airports to give our passengers better options,” she said.

Among the proposals Andolino introduced were commercial development within the airport terminals in an effort to increase revenue, and the pursuit of private investment to develop a high-speed rail project from O’Hare to downtown Chicago.

“I see the airports of the future as a form of social network for our passengers,” Andolino said. “Imagine going from the airport to downtown in only 20 minutes.”

McCormick junior Jonathan Cook said the symposium served as a learning experience before the start of his internship at Boeing.

“It gave me a better understanding of the aviation industry and its relationship with the FAA,” Cook said. “Hopefully some of it will help at my internship.”

Smisek said in his speech the key to business success is to understand the work environment of a company.

“I’m a big believer that if you get the culture right in a business, then everything else will follow,” he said.

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