Aero 2023: Sustainability And Workforce Challenges


While most of the shows I’ve been to since signing up to write about all things aircraft-related are wall-to-wall aviation, my first experience with Aero Friedrichshafen was very much like trying to drink from a firehose. In the three days I spent there, I’m not sure I sat down for anything that wasn’t a press conference. Sleep, ladies and gentlemen, is for the weak, at least when it comes to journalism. On the plus side, there was a lot to see.

The show, which is held annually in Friedrichshafen, Germany, advertised itself as being sustainability-focused. That was certainly apparent, with a much larger showing of electric aircraft and sustainability initiatives than I’m used to seeing at U.S.-based events. All told, I heard about what I expected on the e-front: while progress is being made, electric aircraft just need better battery tech to make the jump into being truly useful to the broader general aviation community. When that technology is coming, who can say.

Similarly, as we’ve been covering on the AVweb newsbeat, more hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell-powered aircraft designs are starting to take flight. However, they still seem to be a fairly long way from certification and even further from general acceptance into the GA fleet. What’s interesting to me is that a growing number of companies are getting these concepts off of the drawing board and into the air.

Finally, when it comes to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), there were several announcements at the show, mainly leaning toward which models can now use it. The sticking point is that SAF production and supply have yet to really stabilize and trust in things like book-and-claim can be iffy. However, these kinds of programs continue to edge their way forward.

None off this is meant to imply that sustainability efforts such as these aren’t worthwhile. Personally, while I believe some are much more likely to bear fruit than others, I think much of it is worth a shot. After all, technology has to start somewhere and that somewhere is pretty much never where we envision the product ending up. Thus, research and development careers remain viable even knowing that most of what people come up with won’t amount to much.

One of the other things that stood out was the conversation around workforce challenges. In addition to being one of the main topics of a panel discussion hosted by GAMA—with panelists from Pilatus, Elixir Aircraft, Pipistrel, ZeroAvia, and Daher—it was also something I heard from quite a few companies while walking the show floor. Skilled employees are hard to find and retaining them is a challenge all its own. To be honest, it’s something I’ve seen in aviation journalism as well. Seasoned writers with significant aviation experience and a pathological need to share it are thin on the ground, strangely enough.

When it came to recruiting strategies, there were several target areas companies reported working on. Perhaps the most obvious to me were early exposure programs aimed at students under the age of 18, along with apprenticeships and internships for people getting ready to enter the workforce. I’m a firm believer that hands-on experiences are hard to beat. An example: Much to my surprise and delight, my little niece thinks airplanes are pretty cool. There was an incident at preschool not too long ago where she got mad at some of the other kids for misidentifying contrails as “clouds.” My brother tells me she was completely incensed and none too genteel about correcting everyone. Obviously, those were airplanes and her friends are just too dumb to be believed. She’s got some real PIC vibes, that kid.

Long story short, she’ll listen to my airplane stories for about five minutes before she’s off to go do something more interesting than listening to her old auntie chatter. However, if I give her my headset, she’ll have a pretend airplane set up with a couple of chairs in no time and be chatting away to “ATC” (me on a stool) for hours. (We’re working on radio calls.) As far as anecdotal evidence in favor of hands-on learning goes, I find it hard to argue with what happens when you give a kid the tools of the trade and let them try it out.

Meanwhile, back in Friedrichshafen, the panelists at the GAMA discussion talked a lot about the place that innovation and a focus on sustainability play in their ability to hire and retain employees. The panelists pretty much universally agreed that innovation and environmentally minded projects were key to bringing people in and keeping them involved. But only if the projects then accomplished something—unsurprisingly, those that didn’t meet at least some of their goals in a timely fashion were far more likely to lose people.

The panelists also mentioned that employees are increasingly agile, highlighting the need for employers to adapt by becoming more agile themselves. As the population moves between jobs more frequently, expecting and preparing for a higher turnover and more fluctuation in staffing is an area of concern. Along those lines, there was a lot of talk about the changing skillsets needed with increasing calls for software and electrical engineers, among others. Furthermore, given the increasing complexity of many projects in aviation these days, finding employees who are able to collaborate in a team environment is becoming more and more necessary.

As I pack my bags for the trip home, my overall impression is that the post-COVID recovery has been strong, but uncertainty remains in the form of skyrocketing prices, significant pressure to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly and the aforementioned workforce challenges. That said, I encountered a lot of enthusiasm and creative thought on how to proceed in these unsettled times.

Kate O'Connor
Kate O’Connor works as AVweb's Editor-in-Chief. She is a private pilot, certificated aircraft dispatcher, and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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  1. The quantity of articles you reported on / produced showed ME that you were busy there, Kate … good job!

  2. Being one of the more hesitant visitors of this years show, after a 2.5 year hiatus from aviation, I returned to AERO Friedrichshafen 2023 with some post-pandemic paranoia and as a exhibitor. All in all the expo was refreshing (albeit for regular guests a 32 Euro entrance fee is very difficult to explain or justify). As for the last 10+ years, high prices have pushed our beloved Avgas burning propulsion units into oblivion and this isn’t about to change. Lots of interesting decelopment work being done and time will tell which concepts sticks and gains momentum. Kate has been a busy cat and was only visible during short stops for lunch. Her backpack can easily be used to tie down a Cessna 172 on a windy day and she is moving it with ease.

  3. “advertised itself as being sustainability-focused”

    The most sustainable aircraft is a C-172.
    what did they offer?