Roaring 2020s? Here's The Post Pandemic Best-Case Scenario

Could the 2020s be an era of prosperity? The pandemic has paved the way for digital, biological, and ecological revolutions.

The new Roaring Twenties may be ahead of us
The new Roaring Twenties may be ahead of us
Jean-Marc Vittori

PARIS — Within 18 or maybe 20 deadly months, we will all finally be vaccinated. We will want to live like never before. The holidays will be beautiful, the skies will be clear, and artists will be celebrated once more, just like a century ago, in the 1920s, the years nicknamed "crazy" in France, "roaring" in England, and "golden" in Germany.

It may be easier to imagine bleak scenarios. Perhaps by mutating, the coronavirus will escape the vaccines that have already been developed. Perhaps our fragile society will be torn apart, or even collapse. Maybe, by rejecting "business as usual" many companies will go bankrupt and others will be unable to invest in the future. Even worse, maybe banks and governments will run out of money, triggering a severe financial crisis.

The culmination of a revolution

A century ago, it was also easy to imagine a grim future. The war had just killed nearly 20 million men and women, and the Spanish flu killed even more. France alone lost more than two million lives from both calamities — roughly one in 20 inhabitants — and another 4 million had been left disabled. The economy was in shambles and the public debt colossal. Yet, production jumped by 70% over the decade. Paris glittered with artists, dancers, and writers — so much so that it became "the center of the world," according to American writer Henry Miller.

We will have to make sure we remember history.

But the energy of the 1920s wasn't only the result of a fervent desire to live. It was also the culmination of an industrial revolution that began just before the war. Electricity replaced steam, the Ford assembly lines multiplied, and the mass consumption of appliances and cars began.

At first glance, this appears to be nothing like today. However, three technological upheavals are at play and the epidemic has loosened the brakes that were supposed to limit their ripple effect.

The most obvious upheaval is also the one that seems the most ineffective: the digital revolution. The Internet already came into our lives a quarter of a century ago, and the computer has been around for more than seventy years. But the potential of artificial intelligence is still in its very early stages. Like the way oil and electricity didn't change our lives overnight, it might take another generation or so to test and exploit such "multi-purpose technology."

"Paris la nuit, dans un dancing de Montmartre," 1927 — Manuel Orazi

Three American economists —Erik Brynjolfsson and Daniel Rock of MIT and Chad Syverson of the University of Chicago — have called it the "J-curve of productivity." First, new technologies bring gains that we don't see: productivity seems to slow down. Then these gains become very visible. What happened for IT could happen again for AI.

The second upheaval is biology. The most obvious breakthrough has been the creation of a vaccine, in less than a year, via messenger RNA. However, this has been the focus of researchers for the past three decades. There has also been the editing of the genome by the "molecular scissors' of the CRISPR/Cas9 system, which won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020. And the three-dimensional models of proteins by the AlphaFold artificial intelligence program of DeepMind, a start-up bought out by Google.

In emergencies, changes that seemed unthinkable before are made in 48 hours.

Next is the green energy transition. It is not some random miracle that Tesla is one of the ten most valuable companies in the world. After more than a century of using oil, the car will change energy source. Plus, immense progress has been made in renewable energy, even if questions about its storage remain. In Covid economic stimulus plans created last year, hundreds of billions of euros and dollars were earmarked for the ecological transition. Investors, too, are increasingly aware of its potential.

In these three revolutions, the pandemic of 2020 has already overcome big obstacles. On the digital side, companies have had no choice but to fully exploit the possibilities offered by new tools to organize work away from the office. Zoom has been around since 2013, but the number of users increased 20-fold over the last year to 200 million. In emergencies, changes that seemed unthinkable before were being made in 48 hours.

On the biological side, the acceleration has been tremendous for vaccines. The need to act in 2020 paved the way for new financing models that combine subsidies and purchasing commitments.

Then, on the ecological side, during this pandemic, governments and companies have been working twice as hard during the epidemic, instead of putting the subject to one side — to the surprise of some seasoned observers of the subject.

Even if the indicators of success will not be the same as they were a century ago, the new Roaring Twenties may be ahead of us. Then we will have to make sure we remember history, to avoid a situation where the happy twenties are followed by the sinister thirties.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

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.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

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.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

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 airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

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.

Smoother check-in

​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.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

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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