EL GOUNA - In Samih Sawiris’ world, “small scale” is not a concept that gets much play. Over the years, the scion of Egypt’s richest family has shown a flair for the oversized, even to the point of eccentricity. Twenty years ago Sawiris bought up around 40 million square meters of sand and rock and “carved paradise out of the desert,” creating the Red Sea resort of El Gouna.
Today, more than 20,000 live or holiday at “the lagoon,” with its two marinas, hotels, 100 restaurants, and 18-hole golf course. Sawiris went on to create similarly extravagant resorts in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, and presently has a project in Switzerland representing an investment estimated at over a billion dollars.
By contrast, Sawiris’ new undertaking seems almost trivial. The 55-year-old believes that “every city needs a university” – and since El Gouna didn’t have one, he built one and gifted it to the Berlin Institute of Technology (Technische Universität Berlin, TU Berlin). Outside, the El Gouna campus features a lush “Nubian-Oriental” style. However, with professors imported from Berlin, and a curriculum aligned with Berlin’s higher education laws, a very different vibe prevails inside.
Welcome to the El Gouna Central Institute, a German exclave under the palm trees of Egypt but completely independent from the Egyptian state and Ministry of Education. Here, 30 students are beginning their Masters degree programs. They will spend two years attending lectures on Water Engineering, Energy Engineering or Urban Development in the elegant, dark wood paneled lecture hall, enjoying breaks in the classy, shaded inner court with an artificial stream running through it, or the lounge with its leather sofas.
Thirty students to the TU’s 30,000; a mere three courses of study offered; only seven buildings and 23 in admin and lab staff – sometimes even Samih Sawiris’ world is small scale.
TU President Professor Jörg Steinbach calls the El Gouna campus – the university’s first facility outside Germany – "a small pearl, strategically located between the Middle East and North Africa." According to university estimates, construction cost Orascom Hotels & Development, of which Samih Sawiris is the CEO, around 38 million euros. Annual operating costs of between one and two million euros will be paid by Sawiris, as well as by the 5,000 euros per semester tuition each student pays.
That Sawiris chose TU for El Gouna is no accident: he is an alumnus. The fluent German speaker got a degree in Economic Engineering there in 1980.
Exporting German education
Steinbach recalls that when Sawiris first approached TU six years ago, "we were surprised but also delighted at the prospect of exporting the education we offer.” The three course options were especially designed with the needs of the Middle East and North Africa region in mind – dry or semi-dry areas with growing populations and increased energy needs but where relatively little renewable energy is used.
TU professors spent two years developing the programs offered in El Gouna – and only offered there – out of existing modules mixed with new material. About half of the El Gouna students are from Egypt, the other half from countries around the world. To apply, they need a BA and a year of work experience. Of the first 100 that applied, 70 qualified and only 30 signed on is, which is normal according to Krystyna Schneider, the El Gouna campus’s deputy managing director. "We were actually surprised at the keen interest – a new university usually needs one or two years to get up and running." German students are not preferred over others, she said.
Ahmed Aly from Cairo, a 26-year-old electrical engineer, is studying Energy Engineering at El Gouna. Through research, he says, he wants “to help create good living conditions for people.” He is familiar with his country’s energy woes. During Ramadan, he recounts, air conditioning systems, ventilators and televisions all stop working because of power outages. "And we can’t do anything about it except wait,” he says, pointing out that part of the problem lies with the country’s infrastructure. "You may only need to go a short stretch in a city, but it will take you two hours – the traffic is crazy."
While Aly put some money away from the years when he worked as an electro designer, without one of the 15 scholarships that Sawiris is financing he couldn’t afford the school’s tuition fees: 5,000 euros is a great deal in a country where the average monthly salary is 200 euros. Aly is also hoping to get help with his living costs so he can move into one of the campus apartments: 35 square meters cost 200 euros a month, and a larger, two-story studio costs 100 euros more.
Whether the TU El Gouna campus grows to accommodate the student body of 500 for which it was designed also depends on whether enough German staff from the Berlin university want to work there, the university says. If that were the case, they could also offer bachelor degrees. They already have one supporter for that idea: "Mr. Sawiris sees us as a social project," says deputy managing director Schneider. "And he says there’s still a lot of room left in El Gouna."
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.
- How Persian Gulf Airlines Surged To Top Class Of Travel Industry ... ›
- How Countries Are Coping With A Tanking Tourism Industry ... ›
- COVID Recovery? End-Of-Summer Checkup On Travel Industry ... ›