eyes on the U.S.

Serpico, Iconic Cop Whistleblower On Snowden And Ferguson

At 79, Frank Serpico, the former New York police whistleblower immortalized by Al Pacino is still a rebel at heart, as cranky and idealistic as ever.

Serpico in 2011
Serpico in 2011
Albertine Bourget

HUDSON â€" His tall, slender figure is topped by a simple wool hat, as the man glares at us from behind his sunglasses. “How am I? Not too bad for a man my age. Well, I do have this shrapnel that sometimes hurt,” he says, his ringed hand pointing to his head.

Forty-five-year-old scars. He then curses the doctors who want to give him a new hipbone and crutches. At nearly 80 â€" he’ll celebrate it on April 14 â€" Frank Serpico still looks good. The interview, which took place a few months ago in the unlikely cafeteria of an organic supermarket on the outskirts of Hudson, two hours north of Manhattan, made it clear: The legendary whistleblower is still driven by the same inner rage that has always guided him.

A police officer in Brooklyn, he caused a sensation in the 1960s and 1970s by officially denouncing â€" a first â€" the rampant corruption inside the New York Police Department. Faced with the silence of his hierarchy, he refused to remain quiet. When his accusations made it on the front page of The New York Times in April 1970, the then mayor, John Lindsay, decided to launch an enquiry: the Knapp Commission.

Among his own, Serpico is seen as a traitor. In Feb. 1971, he was struck by a bullet in the face during a drug bust that went wrong for reasons that are still obscure. His colleagues refrained from calling for help; a resident of the building next door had to call in an ambulance. In 1973, director Sidney Lumet, in Serpico, immortalized him with an Al Pacino who would later receive his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Since then, Lumet has died, Pacino struggles to find Oscar-worthy roles, and Frank Serpico keeps battling corruption and injustice. Last year, he was a Democrat candidate for the local council of the village where he lives, Stuyvesant, which has a population of 2,000, to denounce the local authorities’ “small agreements among friends.”

His defender-of-the-law character comes from his own childhood, he says. To raise their brood in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, his parents, Neapolitan immigrants, worked their fingers to the bone: his mother in a garment sweatshop, his father repairing shoes. The Christmas tree always came after Christmas, decorated with silver strings from unwrapped cigarette packs. “I saw too much injustice and I thought it was up to the police to fix it,” he says dryly.

Never forgiven

He doesn’t regret any of his whistleblowing, even if the NYPD “never forgave” him. “I can say I contributed to civil rights," he says. "If you toss a stone in a pond, you get ripples. With a good stone, you get good ripples.”

From the depths of his countryside, where he bought a wooded plot of land when he still wore a uniform, he closely follows the world’s travails. The controversies linked to police brutality, especially against young black people, enrage him. “They have a badge, a weapon and think they’re God almighty," says Serpico. "Whether it’s in Ferguson or anywhere else, police officers fear for their lives. They’re not trained and they’re given a license to kill! If you tremble in the face of a mouse, how are you meant to do your police work correctly? At the same time, they’re not backed by their hierarchy.”

Serpico says the real problems come from on high. “Corruption comes from above. The greatest country in the world? Our democracy has been shattered! See how they treated Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, or the drones they use to bomb innocent people," he growls. "Then when you shine a light on what the powerful do, they blame the person who is shining the light."

Before he became a police officer, Serpico served two years in the army, in Korea. “We Americans have given up the capacity to think for ourselves. We’ve lost our principles, our moral sense. Now, everyone wants everything, without agreeing to sacrifice anything. Look at those spoiled kids,” he grumbles while watching a little girl throwing a tantrum to get candy at the checkout. “I’m not optimistic. People want to be good, but they choose heroes who’ll do the job for them. Even though I still want to believe in individuals. Gandhi or Martin Luther King weren’t afraid to say things out loud and clear.”

Universal ideals

The hero â€" who categorically refuses to have his coffee payed for him â€" admits that he sometimes feels “exhausted.” But he still receives letters, emails, calls for help. “Today, people still remember something I did more than 40 years ago and are grateful. That reassures me," he says. "And it’s in my nature to want to make the world a better place.”

His more recent battles include giving up on meat, only eating organic and driving a hybrid car. “We send astronauts to space. Shouldn’t we first clean up the mess we leave on earth?”

Serpico's mood relaxes as we switch the conversation to Switzerland, where he moved after leaving the NYPD in the mid-1970s. “I remember a Christmas Eve. I was driving to Aigle a town in Switzerland and was listening to Albinoni’s Adagio. With all that snow, it was like a fairy tale. I thought: ‘This is where I want to live.’ I rented a chalet in Le Sépey. I was happy there.” It was in Switzerland that the FBI came to try and convince him to return to the U.S. to testify once again. He refused then, although he eventually returned.

His foray into politics, perhaps inevitable, was short-lived, defeated in the local race by his Republican rival by about 100 votes. “That’ll spare me a good headache,” he said. Serpico now says he's thinking about spending the rest of his life in Italy. Or why not Cuba. Always in pursuit of a better world.

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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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