NEW YORK — At long last, the members of the United Nations Security Council have reached an agreement on a Syria resolution. The West has agreed to give up on including language that Russia had furiously opposed — that is, to automatically sanction the use of force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if he fails to destroy his chemical weapons stockpiles.
Without the UN resolution’s adoption, it was impossible for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to start implementing the Russian-American plan to establish international control over Syria’s chemical arsenal. For two weeks, the members of the security council could not agree on the text of the resolution, because the West persistently argued that including the automatic penalty if Assad failed to comply would be the only way to ensure that he kept his word.
Russia and China were both against this automatic use of force — instead insisting that each instance of alleged non-compliance would first have to be reviewed by the security council before any action was taken. Russia’s argument was that Assad’s opponents are hoping for an international intervention, and their interests would not be served by success of the OPCW mission. “If the regime really gives all of its chemical arsenal up, then it will be impossible to accuse the regime of organizing chemical attacks against civilians, which would mean that the reason for intervention would disappear,” a Russian diplomatic source explained. “That is not in the opposition’s best interest.”
If the resolution’s text had included an automatic penalty, then any departure from the OPCW plan — whether a chemical attack or the leak of chemical weapons outside of the country — would give free rein to the countries who want to punish Assad. Moscow was afraid that the opposition would do something to provoke that scenario. President Vladimir Putin recently said that he considered the Aug. 21 chemical attack near Damascus “provocation from Syrian opposition fighters.”
As a result of that attack, between 300 (according to French data) and 1,500 (according to U.S. data) people died. The United States and its allies say that there is “irrefutable proof” that Assad’s regime committed the attacks. One of the most important pieces of evidence against the Syrian regime is a telephone conversation between the Syrian military recorded by American intelligence. In the recording, a representative of the Syrian Defense Ministry demands an explanation for the chemical attack from a military unit commander.
At the same time, the Syrian government has been trying to convince the world that the opposition is behind the chemical attacks. A diplomatic source in Geneva gave us a copy of some of the documents that Damascus has sent to international organizations to support that assertion. The documents were also the result of a recorded telephone call, but it was the Syrian intelligence service that made the recording. The document says it was recorded on Aug. 13, and the phone numbers of both parties are indicated.
The name of the caller isn’t shown in the conversation, but the man he talks to is named Abu Abdo. The gist of the conversation is the following: The caller offers to sell Abu Abdo (who seems to be located in opposition-controlled areas) 30 82-millimeter caliber mortar shells.
Abdo asks, “Are they Russian or homemade?” The seller answers, “Russian, originals, in boxes.” He asks for $310 per shell ($300 for the shell, $10 for his services). Abdo asks if the seller is sure he would be able to deliver the goods, adding, “Someone offered us some gas shells recently, but then they took off.” According to Abdo, the deal was supposed to take place near the Lebanese border town of Arsal. He doesn’t specify what the name of the gas is but says that he needs “that kind of shell.” Abdo asks, “Are your shells already loaded with gas?” The seller promises to verify.
The source who provided the documents was not able to answer whether the deal discussed during the recorded call was actually finalized. It’s hard to evaluate the reliability of the transcript, but a Kommersant correspondent was able to reach someone at the number that Abu Abdo supposably spoke from in the transcript. The man who answered spoke the dialect of Arabic common in Lebanon and Syria and answered to the name Abu Abdo. He offered to send answers to our questions by email, but his answers never arrived. In the French and German press, we were also able to find references to a field commander of Lebanese origin called Abu Abdo. One report referred to him as a “Lebanese weapons dealer.”
It’s worth noting that the West has recently ceased claiming that the Syrian opposition doesn’t have chemical weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry said as much for the first time on Sept. 14, after meeting in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The OPCW plan is still considered a U.S.-Russian plan, which does not prevent the two sides from interpreting many of the plan’s key components differently — not least of which is the applicability of the UN’s chapter 7, which allows for military and non-military actions to promote peace and security. Relations between the two countries no doubt remain frosty. Regardless, it seems like the two sides have finally reached a compromise.
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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