Could the ‘splinternet’ hurt business aviation?

25 Jun 2019

Collaboration. Cooperation. Integration. Partnership. These are all great words in private aviation. Interconnectivity is critical to the future global success of our industry. But is the growing geopolitical fragmentation of the internet, a concept known as the ‘splinternet’, a threat?

Some of the names linked to the splinternet – from ‘The Great Firewall of China’ to a German ‘Internetz’ – might sound playful but if abused, digital walls are no joke. Dividing the internet into separate national infrastructures, surrounded by barriers and full of restrictions, is hardly in line with business aviation’s spirit of global cooperation.

So, should we be seriously worried? Some points to bear in mind: 

  • How can we cooperate internationally, and seamlessly integrate our technologies, if we are not ‘talking’ online? From brokers and operators, to caterers and FBOs, sharing real-time information digitally is invaluable in modern bizav. Measures that slow or block this flow of cross-border data will be damaging. New and unnecessary inefficiencies will develop. Costs will rise. Customers will suffer.
  • Abusing the splinternet to create and support forms of domestic protectionism will undoubtedly restrict the global development of bizav. Cabotage rights could effectively be denied (albeit unofficially) to foreign air charter operators who find they simply have insufficient, if any, worthwhile online access to the ‘closed’ national marketplace. Home operators could establish monopolies in these nations, transparency and competition will be lost, and prices will soar unreasonably and unchecked. Again, customers will suffer. And if you still think cabotage rights aren’t really very important, have a chat with charter operators in the UK. Ask if they’re worried about being excluded from the European Union single market and losing European cabotage rights in a post-Brexit world. 
  • Accusations of Chinese spies targeting the technical secrets of US aerospace companies through hacking are not encouraging. Cyberspace is clearly a global battlefield.

Should we panic, though?
Absolutely not. After all…

  • Bizav is a serious economic generator. Any country setting up splinternet borders (for whatever ideological reasons) will surely soon revise the idea if the national economy suffers as a result. Plans and principles often collapse quickly under financial pressure.

  • True, some countries could see benefits in setting up data localisation laws. A nation might, for example, try to refuse to allow companies operating online in their country to store information on those operations on their company servers abroad. See Apple’s recent move to store Chinese iCloud user data in China, for example. In a spirit of trade protection, the aim would be to drive data storage business to home companies, limiting the role of international IT firms in the country. Would those local data centres increase their domestic market share? Probably. But would the larger national economy suffer, surrounded by barriers to international ecommerce? Definitely. It’s fair to hope, therefore, many splinternet plans will be dropped long before private aviation really feels any impact.
  • Why would nations risk losing inward investment by keeping international bizjets out? People who fly privately often bring big deals in their pockets. And hosting international events supported by bizav (such as the 2018 Russia World Cup) can be very lucrative indeed.

  • Countries developing aviation and aerospace manufacturing industries need international support and cooperation, not isolation. Look at the narrowbody C919 aircraft. Scheduled for first commercial delivery to China Eastern Airlines around 2021, this proudly ‘home-made’ aircraft from state-owned manufacturer Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) still needs a ‘foreign’ engine, as no suitable Chinese engine currently exists. Nations should be looking to build, not damage, international aviation relations right now.

The commercial realities of the global digital economy may be the biggest threat to the growth of the splinternet. We have to hope politicians and economists understand what we already know in private aviation – that we all become stronger when we work together.

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