GAIBANDHA DISTRICT — In remote areas of Bangladesh, the Internet can arrive in unpredictable ways. Take for example, Shathi, who rolls into a small village, ringing the bell on her bike – and soon the kids are running to tell their parents, screaming "Hello! Hello!"
And so the women of the village come out of their houses one-by-one to meet one of the "Info Ladies." In the middle of a dirt-covered courtyard, Shathi — wearing a pink and blue tunic — carefully settles a laptop on a plastic chair, plugs in earphones and starts a Skype session. In front of an audience still stunned each time by the sight, the men of the village, working thousands of kilometers away, appear on the screen.
"I feel like my brother is in front of me, except I can’t touch him," says a worried Sumita, scarf and cap on her head. "He’s put on some weight and his skin tone has gone slightly lighter since he’s been working in Iraq." She keeps repeating "As-salam alaykum" and "Hello" because she fears they will be disconnected. "The connection isn’t great," Shathi says. "Today’s a holiday, and everyone wants to call the countries of the Gulf, so it's jammed."
A session is very costly: two to three euros per hour. "The price comprises tech support and volume adjustments," Shathi says. But even at this price, Skype remains very popular. In Bangladesh, only 5 million people, a tiny portion of the 152 million population, have Internet access.
To reach the rest, 56 "Info Ladies" roam the Bangladesh countryside on their bikes outfitted with laptops, cameras for videos or wedding pictures, devices to gauge diabetes levels, pregnancy tests, cosmetics and shampoo. Thanks to their laptops, connected to "the new world" via USB flashdrive, these Info Ladies bring knowledge and information far beyond what the village teachers can offer. And the ladies can also give advice to farmers, perform diabetes tests or even search for and offer legal advice.
For millions of people in Bangladesh, "surfing the web is like landing a space shuttle on another planet," says Shathi, and "a lot of people are scared." But she believes that technology is not just the prerogative of those who can use it. It belongs more to the people who want to make it theirs.
The ladies exchange advice and sometimes spend entire nights sorting out technical issues. D.net is the name of the organization that launched the project in 2008. It held a three-month training session for the women in a center close to their homes to help them learn how to use the devices. They are given the opportunity to negotiate a loan — around 500 euros on average — to get started.
The day starts early. At 6 a.m. Jeyasmin is already cooking a rice-based meal on the little dirt floor in front of her cabin before taking her daughter to school. Anxious men are at her door, waiting for their diabetes tests. Since Jeyasmin held a prevention meeting about it, a majority of locals now are worried they have it.
"The villagers are still not always ready to buy information, so the ladies sell services on the side such as medical tests or natural fertilizers," explains Ananya Raihan, D.net director.
A few hours later, a few teenagers are waiting in the shade of a date palm for Jeyasmin to come. There are shown a video with experts in white coats talking with animated graphs over their heads. "The doctors never come to see us, so we might as well watch them on a screen," says one participant. "Even if we’d rather have them answer our questions." When Jeyasmin brings out her scales, every villager comes running. They step on the machine, head held high, chest puffed, not moving an inch because they fear they might break the thing.
In the eyes of many teens, the Info Ladies are confidantes. "They don’t judge us and they understand what our problems are," says one. Some have even asked her to buy panties, sanitary napkins and makeup in town, because women are seldom granted the right to go to the market.
The Info Ladies also have what they call their "Facebook secrets" or "Skype secrets." After creating a Facebook account, Golapi Akter found a Bangladeshi man living in Dubai. "There are so many people on Facebook," the young woman whispers. She talks with him every week via Skype and even introduced him to her parents through the webcam.
With a salary of about 120 euros a month, some ladies invest in businesses on the side. Shathi, for instance, transformed her parents’ shop into a rural supermarket using her savings. There you can find health kits, flashdrives, medication, toys, DVDs, kits to mend cell phones that fall into the rice field waters. A small parking lot was built in front of it for the bikes. Her small business is doing very well, and she bought herself a generator so that she can have Bollywood movies constantly running on TV, even in the case of an electric blackout.
The ladies’ project is still in the early stages. It failed in the conservative regions where women can’t really have a job and in areas where the proportion of migrant workers is too low to make sufficient profit. In the districts where the system works, the ladies are supposed to save money for market research and eventually to switch to tablets instead of laptops — because of dust resistance issues. This time, the new recruits will have to spend 1,600 euros to earn the title of "Info Lady."
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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