A Farewell From The Best-Connected Davos Man You've Never Heard Of

As it does every January, the upscale Belvédère Hotel in Davos will host World Economic Forum guests. Only this year, the VIP's won't receive their usual greeting from Ernst Wyrsch, the hotel’s recently-retired director, who has long min

The Belvédère Hotel in Davos, Switzerland (Robert Scoble)
The Belvédère Hotel in Davos, Switzerland (Robert Scoble)
Matthias Chapman

DAVOS -- "I had tears in my eyes," says Ernst Wyrsch. He wasn't talking about last year, when he left his job of 15 years as director of the Belvédère Hotel above Davos, Switzerland. He was talking about 2006, when boxing legend Muhammad Ali visited the hotel. "We waited for him in the lobby, along with around 50 journalists and photographers. When Ali arrived, something unexpected happened. The photographers put their cameras down on the ground and started applauding."

Wyrsch has probably met and lodged more government and business leaders, more show biz greats, than anyone else in Switzerland. Along with 70 Nobel prizewinners, the list includes 100 heads of state. Just a few of the names on it are Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl, Tony Blair, Bill Gates, Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne and Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann – not to mention Angelina Jolie, U2 front man Bono and Robert De Niro. Wyrsch has endless stories to tell, ranging from Clinton's talents on the saxophone to the impact of being in the presence of Nelson Mandela, whose eyes were still so sensitive to light after years in jail that photographers were forbidden to use flashes.

As director of the Belvédère, Wyrsch became a central figure in Davos, where his hotel remains a favorite address of the world's great and good. Wyrsch remembers taking up his position when the hotel was "very down" and there was talk of demolishing it or converting it into holiday apartments. Wyrsch put all his energy into keeping it functioning as a hotel. He made his number one priority the week in January when the World Economic Forum (WEF) meets in Davos.

Wyrsch's concept didn't find favor with everyone. He was, for example, the person who came up with the idea of staging big society events in the mountain town. "That wasn't always in the interests of WEF founders Klaus and Hilda Schwab," he says. The founders preferred a more "sober" atmosphere, according to Wyrsch.

Wyrsch also discovered that there's a dark side to the glamorous lifestyle. "Some of these people want a separate entrance, or a red carpet, and when all the extra trouble you go to still isn't enough – it was kind of a pain," he says. He also remembers more than one big-time French business leader: "They compensated for the fact that they didn't speak foreign languages with arrogance." Sarkozy's was an exciting presence, "but he took up an exceptional amount of room."

Clinton"s mega-entourage

Probably the most important if also the most security-intensive visit during his Belvédère career was that of former U.S. president Bill Clinton in 2000. "He had an entourage of 1,500 people, really borderline in terms of putting them all up," says Wyrsch. Rooms had to be booked for miles around. Clinton's security team was particularly picky: "Only the director's apartment in our hotel was good enough for them." Before the big man arrived, some 40 Secret Service officers showed up and examined every last corner of the Belvédère.

The January following 9/11 was also a challenge for Wyrsch. The WEF meeting in 2002 took place at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. "My wife was invited to work with the team there, and she gave me daily updates." This was also a time when anti-WEF activity was increasingly taking place in Davos, and it was unclear if the annual meetings would resume there. "But on the last day in New York, there was a vote, and the majority – even the Americans -- wanted to return to Davos."

Since then, Davos appears to be unchallenged as the venue for the WEF meeting. New conference facilities have been built to the tune of 40 million Swiss francs and several new hotels are going up.

Wyrsch, 50, retired the day after last year's WEF conference came to an end. He made the decision because, in his words, he wanted to try his hand at "something new." Wyrsch is now a lecturer at the St. Gallen Business School and sits on a number of tourism sector boards. He still lives in Davos. Looking ahead to next week, he says: "I'll be meeting up privately with a few old friends." Who knows, maybe Bill Clinton will drop by the house, just like he did in the old days.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Robert Scoble

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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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