BANGUI — The motorbike stops abruptly. “If the French don’t want to help us, al-Qaeda will,” the teenager shouts before driving away. All around him, this road of the Begoua neighborhood in north Bangui — the Central African Republic’s capital — is covered in bundles full of the belongings of hundreds of people waiting to leave for Chad. Most of the men of the Fula community are armed with machetes, bows and arrows.
These days, France is not the most beloved country in this neighborhood. At the Nur al-Imam mosque, the bodies of three men and two women are rolled up in mats. “The French soldiers killed them. There were six of them, on foot. They threw grenades and shot with their rifles,” says Fadil Mahamat. Another man holds up the cartridge clip of a FAMAS, a French military rifle, bullet casings and a grenade pin as evidence.
The day after this incident, two armored vehicles came to reinforce the barrier marking the city’s northern exit. Muslim inhabitants are escorted by a general of the Séléka — the alliance of rebel movements that overthrew the government in March 2013 — and point to barely dry blood stains on the dusty ground and bullet holes on a metal gate. Meanwhile, a column of more than 30 soldiers of the French-led “Sangaris” operation appear in the street.
The locals accuse a Chinese man of throwing the deadly grenade. "They killed people just like that, right outside their homes,” one the men claims. Not a single word is exchanged between the two groups, but the stares crossing are those of people who have seen each other recently. “Careful, shots can be fired at any moment,” a French soldier warns. An officer confirms that an exchange of fire took place late on Wednesday afternoon of last week, but says no one was killed.
“Hollande is a criminal!”
A few meters away, Aristide and Bienvenu Aganze show their wounds. “The French had left to look for weapons, but, at 7 p.m., the Muslims came to attack us. They pillaged five houses," says a local resident. A young shop owner named Herman was reportedly killed, after having been threatened.
"There were others killed,” says the resident, who appears eager to leave the premises.
Another part of Bangui is emptying out — but this time, maybe for good. At KM 5, in the large Muslim area and business nerve-center of the capital, many houses have been deserted. Barely a woman or child remains. In the main roundabout, which features a statue of the sub-lieutenant Koudoukou, a Companion of the Liberation, the following words have been painted in French: “No to France. Hollande is a criminal!”
A speech by Moussa Hassaba Rassoul, a former Séléka officer now claiming to be a leader of the Muslim youth, is clear. “Politics and religion must not be mixed. We’re not Islamists. Here, we defend Christians; we stay to protect our property. We’re prepared for peace as well as war.”
But then comes a charge against France. “"Sangaris', when we’re attacked, they say ‘too bad’; they help the anti-Balaka the militias opposed to the Séléka and thieves. On Saturday, they searched the house of one of my nephews. The French didn’t find anything; they left and the onlookers killed him. President Hollande is bringing genocide into the C.A.R.”
Gone for good?
No one around him mentions the retaliation or looting attacks some of them are suspected of having carried out. Nor do they talk about the weapons dispersed around the neighborhood. Moments later, an all-terrain vehicle suddenly appears. “You intellectuals, you talk, but what do you do to protect us. We are infantrymen,” the driver shouts before hurtling off.
There are reasons for such anger. For a large part of the Central African Republic's Muslim community, the tens of thousands of Chadian immigrants or their descendants, the French military intervention that began in early December has been a catastrophe. The Séléka were, for many of them, a protective force. With these loyal fighters gone, the situation has given way to those who were only waiting to get revenge.
Chad is evacuating its citizens and all those who have Chadian ancestry, targeted as presumed accomplices of the former rebellion. N'Djamena has sent hundreds of soldiers to escort them on their way to the border. Last Thursday, a convoy of over a hundred private vehicles, dump trucks and vans full of men — piled up in between suitcases, furniture, mattresses and containers — left Bangui, protected by Chadian soldiers.
Others are still waiting to leave by air. In the military section of the airport, a camp for displaced people was set up a month ago on the initiative of Chadian authorities. Here, between 600 and 800 people live protected by the African and French forces, but face brutal conditions.
Kaltouma Omar knows nothing about the country of origin of his father, who died 20 years ago. This young girl, who had just been hired in public service, says that, when President Michel Djotodia resigned on Jan. 10, her neighbor organized the pillaging of her house. She and her relatives are hoping to find a paternal family they have never met.
Hadja Saboura, instead, is waiting with 11 family members to board the next possible flight chartered by the International Office for Migration. “I was born here in 1963. My mother was born here in 1943. This is my country, but the Central Africans have turned into wild animals. I won’t lie, if I find another country, I will never return here.”
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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