UKRAINIAN FORCES PULL BACK
Ukraine’s government forces began withdrawing today from the eastern and key strategic city of Debaltseve, which has been under siege from pro-Russian separatists, Reuters reports. Semen Semenchenko, who heads the Ukrainian paramilitary battalion, wrote on Facebook that “the withdrawal of forces from Debaltseve is taking place in a planned and organized way.” But he added that “the enemy is trying to cut the roads and prevent the exit of the troops.”
- But Mykola Kolesnyk, another pro-government paramilitary leader, told Ukrainian television channel 112 that not all troops were withdrawing. “We are talking only about units that are surrounded in populated areas in and around the town.”
- The U.S. and UN have accused Russia of violating the Minsk ceasefire that became effective Saturday at midnight, The Guardian reports. “The idea that Russia, which manufactured and continues to escalate the violence in Ukraine, has tabled a resolution today calling for the conflict’s peaceful solution is ironic to say the least,” said Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the UN.
- Pro-Russian separatists claim the Minsk ceasefire doesn’t apply to the city of Debaltseve, a rail hub that links eastern Ukraine’s two rebel-controlled regions, Reuters reports.
Photo above: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/ZUMA
Sky watchers were able to enjoy the stunning aurora borealis, or northern lights, Tuesday over Dunstanburgh Castle in Northumberland, UK.
PROSECUTORS INVESTIGATE SWISS BANKS
Officials in Switzerland have opened an investigation into suspected money-laundering by HSBC’s private banking subsidiary in Geneva, the country’s authorities announced in a statement. The bank’s premises were being searched this morning in the Swiss capital amid revelations that the bank turned a blind eye to illegal activities, the Swiss daily Le Temps reports. HSBC is currently at the heart of a vast tax fraud scandal revealed by “Swiss Leaks,” a journalistic investigation published Feb. 8 by several newspapers.
- Meanwhile, The Telegraph’s chief political commentator Peter Oborne has resigned from the conservative British daily over its virtually non-existent coverage of HSBC’s alleged wrongdoing. In a post on openDemocracy, Oborne explains that the newspaper put the bank’s interests ahead of its readers’.
“Such behaviour is abhorrent and has no place in football or society,” the London soccer club Chelsea FC said in a statement Wednesday. It came after Chelsea fans were involved in a racist incident in Paris before the Champion’s League match against Paris Saint-Germain Tuesday. In a video sent to The Guardian, a group of men can be seen repeatedly pushing back a black man trying to board a Paris Metro, before chanting, “We’re racist and that’s the way we like it.” The Chelsea FC statement said the franchise would “support any criminal action against those involved in such behaviour.”
SYRIA TO SUSPEND ALEPPO STRIKES
The Syrian government is willing to freeze its aerial and artillery strikes on the northern city of Aleppo to allow a localized humanitarian ceasefire, Staffan de Mistura, UN special representative for Syria, announced Tuesday. He said the start date of the “truce” had not been determined yet. “I have no illusions, because based on past experience, this will be a difficult issue to achieve,” he said.
MY GRAND-PÈRE’S WORLD
As Le Nouvel Observateur’s Doan Bui recounts, French police seized a huge stash of previously unseen Picasso drawings at the home of the late artist's electrician in 2010. An ongoing trial will decide whether they were gifts or stolen goods. “The box reappeared almost half a century later, and in a completely unexpected way,” the journalist writes. “In 2010, electrician Pierre Le Guennec and his wife Danielle made themselves known to the Picasso Administration and claimed certificates of authenticity for these unpublished works. The box, they said, was given to them by Pablo Picasso and Jacqueline, his late wife who died in 1986. During the 40 previous years, they claimed to have forgotten it in their garage, at the back of their small house in Mouans-Sartoux, near Cannes.”
Read the full article, The French Electrician With 271 Picassos In His Garage.
16 DEAD IN HAITI CARNIVAL ACCIDENT
A stampede caused by a popular singer hitting an overhead power line while on a Carnival float in Port-au-Prince Tuesday killed at least 16 people and injured 78, Le Monde reports. The last day of Carnival has been cancelled in the Haitian capital, and the government has declared three days of mourning.
Only about $300 million — or 5% — of the $5.4 billion world leaders pledged to help rebuild Gaza have actually reached Palestinian territory so far, Al Jazeera reports. The Israeli military’s operation in Gaza last summer killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and destroyed almost 100,000 homes.
BOKO HARAM THREATENS NIGERIA ELECTION
In a video released Tuesday, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatens to disrupt Nigeria’s March 28 presidential election, France 24 reports. “We say that these elections that you are planning to do will not happen in peace, even if that costs us our lives,” the leader of the terrorist group says. The video appeared as two suicide bombings killed at least 38 people and injured 20 others in northeastern Nigeria Tuesday.
ON THIS DAY
On Feb. 18, 1978, Hawaii hosted the first Ironman Triathlon, now an annual event. Time for your 57-second shot of history.
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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