eyes on the U.S.

A Farewell To America, In More Ways Than One

After 15 years of living and working in the United States, a Die Welt correspondent says good-bye, not only to his adopted country but also to the pre-9/11 grandeur the U.S. once enjoyed.

Leaving NYC
Leaving NYC
Uwe Schmitt

-Essay-

America was good and generous to me. It gifted me with the birth of a third daughter, four presidential elections and a weight gain of 17.6 pounds because there were often no alternatives to driving. It divested me of an addiction to nicotine, Eurocentrism, and the notion that, post-9/11, the country could continue to be as relaxed and confident as ever.

There is a lot of resistance to the forces of change. When I first came to America, just two weeks after the Columbine school massacre that left 13 dead, the nation was in shock. When I left, the killing sprees at Virginia Tech and Newton had somehow demonstrated that the right to own weapons was more important than the right of young Americans to life. Shock had become routine.

In May 1999, I came to a country that at heart was brimming with self-assurance and bearishness. Monica Lewinsky and a sex-addicted president whose perjury nearly cost him his job and honor were the worst scandal going. Now Republicans and Democrats are engaged in an implacable fratricidal war and respect for Congress is at its lowest ebb in 25 years. Meanwhile, Americans consider themselves besieged by hordes of refugee children in Texas and world jihadism everywhere.

The only thing friends of all political stripes could agree on by the time I left last month was the notion that America had changed for the worse after 9/11. Once so welcoming, it has become hard. A century of security under Pax Americana has weakened, the irreplaceable superpower has shrunk and is now tending towards a new faintheartedness. Seeing America like that hurts.

This is not just the subjective view of a non-American. In late June, President Barack Obama's approval ratings fell to a new low. A clear majority of the electorate believed that Obama wasn't leading and couldn't "get the job done." But the president's ratings were great compared to the public's contempt for Congress. Only 7% of Americans said they still had "a lot" or "quite a lot" of trust in Congress. A U.S. president has never been so crippled so soon after a brilliant reelection.

Plastic currency

Fifteen years and a month after I came to America, my bank, SunTrust, informed me that my creditworthiness was better than 79% of users.

The letter went on to say that loans at reasonable rates and other investments were now possible with SunTrust, even encouraged. That was a historic day because the absence of a "credit history" — respectability in the creation and servicing of debt — made my first year in the U.S. difficult.

Anybody with money abroad and who paid for things in cash, like me, was suspected of dealing drugs, although since 2001 international terrorism has provided a further avenue for suspicion. It was only thanks to a Social Security number that I was able to open a bank account.

Offers for credit cards came in about a year, after I went pretty heavily into debt buying a car and had proven myself a responsible consumer by regularly paying my installments. In a country with an economy that is 70% dependent on private consumption, only people with debt are considered trustworthy.

But mine was not the sort of profile beloved by credit card companies. I was something of a party pooper in that I paid all my bills and taxes promptly and in full, and only had one credit card. These qualities marked me as weird, stupid and un-American.

When I arrived, renting a home was considered dimwitted, but by the time I left last month, the burst real estate bubble and the 2008 crisis had emancipated tenants from their second-class status. In this era of low job security, the trend now is for young Americans to go back to the city — and rent an apartment.

The march of arrogant intellectuals

Travel in the United States is always worth it. It is an arrogant myth perpetrated by intellectuals on the two coasts that the middle of the country, the south, the Rockies, and the north are filled with yokels and rednecks. Electoral maps may show that Americans on the East Coast and West Coast are more liberal, that others are more conservative and religious, but that says little about the people.

Only a fool can maintain that there aren't any open-minded, warm-hearted people in Texas, Mississippi or Iowa. Every country has the prejudices it deserves, but they needn't be blindly accepted. Political polarization may divide families, isolate co-workers, and relegate America in many respects to second-class status, but it hasn't harmed traditional pioneer hospitality.

I met such selfless, courageous people when I traveled to Houston and New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I discovered pioneer spirit in the fracking rush in North Dakota, where men with MIT doctorates were earning $200,000 a year driving trucks. I met decent soldiers and members of the forces who disagreed with Guantanamo Bay, altruistic activists working with refugees in San Diego, liberal teachers and rodeo riders in Kansas, dignified and feisty families of 9/11 victims.

I have seen Asian Americans blossom from a forgotten minority to a much-courted class. Latinos, a neglected population at the end of the century who were ignored by clueless politicians and politically powerful groups, are today America's largest and fastest-growing minority. The U.S. is becoming ever more diverse and would be hard-pressed to function without Latino votes and church affiliations.

Gay men and women have increasingly come out, and same-sex marriage is recognized in many states. The trend is irreversible. Yet all this laudable progress on the path of freedom and equality came about not with the politicians, but despite them.

Travel across America and you'll understand why the country and its people are an island unto themselves. It's a gigantic island, and the rest of us are the ocean.

Rise of the fundamentalist right

It has been written many times, perhaps because it's true, that Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and even George W. Bush would be rejected by the Republican Party today. They were too ready to compromise, had too much of a social conscience ("compassionate conservatism"). And despite all its piety and intractability on the abortion issue, they didn't regard poverty as the fault of the poor.

The Democrats pay far too much attention to what their major donors on Wall Street want, to powerful lawyer groups and certain unions that are against any sort of reform. Obama, a former civil rights activist, teacher of constitutional law and a well-tempered centrist by persuasion, has failed in the face of parties that deal with each other as a mere matter of form. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives has voted something like 50 times to try and destroy the health care reform bill known as Obamacare. With no consequences so far, apart from their almost total refusal to do their legislative jobs.

That's the America that shakes your faith. Politicians who are proud to have finally hammered through in their states the right to carry guns into churches and schools. Politicians who use national chauvinism to stall dealing seriously with the country’s countless structural problems.

With the support of relevant experts, Obama has been saying for years that America's students are falling behind international standards. Airports are outdated, the streets are full of pot holes, bridges go dangerously neglected.

If you've ever seen the dangling gas and electrical lines that connect American homes, even in wealthy areas, you'll know what I'm talking about. Since the Industrial Revolution, third-world and and first-world living standards have co-existed in the United States. After 50 years of exploiting the infrastructure and decades of Republican refusal to raise taxes, third-world standards are growing.

America's great virtues — readiness to lead, solidarity in times of need, its spirit — are being pressed by a powerful surveillance and security apparatus. Since its inception post-9/11, the Department of Homeland Security portfolio has become the largest after the Pentagon. Well-founded vigilance degenerates into paranoia whenever national security is allegedly threatened.

Backyard farewells

We said our good-byes to friends and neighbors by throwing a garden party. It was harder than we thought it would be. There were no speeches, just many good wishes and wonderful conversations. The Germans stayed for a long time, the Americans left early. This is a hard-working country, hours are long, which makes weekend time all the more precious.

With it all, nobody tapped into the pathos of leave-taking as beautifully as the man from Sprint, my cell phone provider. When I called to pay my last bill, he said, "We hate having to let you go. Enjoy your time in Germany. You have a great future ahead of you." I never found out his name. American grandezza.

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Future

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

commons.wikimedia.org

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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