JALALABAD â€" Itâ€™s early morning in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan. Haroon Sarwari, 17, and Manzoor Ali, 18, are wearing their backpacks and walking quickly to get a taxi to reach Kabul on time.
These close friends have laid out plans to travel to Europe illegally with the help of a smuggling agent. Haroon's cousins managed to get to Germany three months before, so his father, Sarwar Khan, supports the plan.
"My father sold a few of his cows and borrowed some money from his friends to send me to Europe," the teenager explains. "He has already agreed with the agent on how much to pay."
Sarwar Khan admits, nevertheless, that it's been a difficult decision. "Children are part of the body and soul, but I needed to do this. The security situation in the country is not good and there are no jobs," he says. "The agent told me that Haroon would reach Europe in about three months because the roads are very dangerous."
Haroon and Manzoor are energetic, happy and anxious during the three-hour-long drive from Jalalabad to Kabul. They spend the entire time talking about what their life in Germany will be like. They say they will take any job, from washing dishes to cleaning toilets. At no point, though, do they talk about the hardships they might endure, or how risky the journey there will be.
Later that afternoon, in the capital, hundreds of Afghans, mostly young people, are queuing for their electronic passports, testament to just how difficult conditions are in the war-torn, economically depressed nation.
On the Jalalabad to Kabul highway â€" Photo: Peretz Partensky
A survey in December 2015, conducted jointly by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNRA) and the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, or AREU, found that poverty, insecurity and unemployment are the main reasons driving Afghan youth to immigrate illegally. The Afghan government recently announced that 250,000 Afghans have been registered as refugees in developed countries.
"One of the common points that we found in our research is that people who cross borders illegally face extremely difficult situations from both human trafficking agents and the police," says Dr. Sayed Mahdi Mosawi, a senior researcher with the AREU. "Police severely beat and punish illegal immigrants, even kill them in some cases."
By some estimates there are only about 3 million jobs in Afghanistan for an eligible workforce of approximately 16 million. The AREU researcher says more jobs would encourage young Afghans to stay at home.
In Kabul, finding an agent to arrange illegal passage is relatively easy. But the services aren't cheap. Agents charge between $5,000 and $12,000, depending on the routes and destination countries. Ramin Jan, an agent I met on a roadside in Jalalabad city, says England is the most expensive destination, with a going smuggler's rate of $12,000.
Walking in Jalalabad â€" Photo: Peretz Partensky
"We have a network of agents," Ramin, who is not yet 30, explains. "We take people from western Afghanistan to Iran and then to Turkey. Our main duty is to hand our people over to an agent in Turkey. That person is then responsible for the rest of the trip into the different European countries."
Sharifa Omeri lost her son eight months ago when he tried to reach Europe by way of Iran and Turkey. He was shot dead while running from Iranian border police. Sharifa says that since then, time seems to have stopped. She also says that the journey wasn't worth the risk. "I wish I never allowed him to leave the country, that I had stopped him by force so I would not have lost him," she says.
The Afghan government is trying to send the same message, and promises to crack down on smugglers. But unless it can provide more jobs, the government's warnings are likely to fall on deaf ears.
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 ... ›