GAZIANTEP — "The nightmares only started when I left Aleppo," says 30-year-old Mahmoud, a Syrian activist and journalist now living as a refugee in Turkey.
"Before — even after my best friend was killed next to me when we were filming a battle against the regime — I felt sad but I never had nightmares," he said, speaking in late September in a southern Turkish border town. Mahmoud lost a finger that day in 2013, and his friend's skull was shattered.
Over years of reporting in Syria, Mahmoud faced much danger and personal loss. But it wasn't until six months ago, with the Turkish border closed, smuggling growing more expensive and his hometown entirely besieged, that he finally decided to leave Syria.
It hasn't brought him much peace. "Now, if a friend checks a telephone in the same room at night and a small light appears, I wake up terrified," Mahmoud says. "For a few minutes I'm convinced it's the civil defense coming to dig my family and me out of the rubble, and I panic."
Mahmoud's seven brothers and his parents are still in Aleppo. Three of his brothers also work in the media, some for Western media outlets, and others as activists for armed opposition groups.
His older brother, who goes by the name Abdalrahman Ismail, is still working as a photojournalist inside besieged areas of Aleppo.
Now separated by the Turkish border, the story of the two brothers illustrates the divergent yet equally harrowing toll that the Syrian war has exacted on families, colleagues and friends.
The brother who left
Mahmoud was the first member of his family to get involved in anti-regime activities in 2011. He moved out of the family home in a regime-held area of Aleppo when it became too dangerous for his family for him to be there.
Later, after several of his brothers were arrested, his family moved to opposition-held parts of the city, near the front line.
They later went to Jarablus, near the Turkish border, where Mahmoud thought the family would be safer. They stayed in an abandoned school just outside of the town for almost a year.
After ISIS took over Jarablus, the family had to move back to opposition-held parts of Aleppo's Old City. A barrel bomb hit 66 feet (20 meters) from their home in 2015, blowing out the windows and doors, but none of the family were hurt.
Mahmoud started out as a media activist for an armed group in Aleppo and later began to occasionally sell photos to Agence France-Presse and other Western media outlets. He set up his own local media outlet, Focus Aleppo, with friends in 2014.
He stayed in Aleppo after his friend's death, and even during a brief period of ISIS control over his area of Aleppo.
He crossed into Turkey surreptitiously to attend several media workshops, but he always returned to Syria. He received support from an Islamic charity to get much-needed surgery for his injuries in Istanbul in mid-2014. He says he never considered leaving for Europe or anywhere else.
But eventually, six months ago, he decided to leave. "What I was afraid would happen, has," he says of the situation in Aleppo, parts of which have been under siege since July 17, when the regime cut the only route left out of the city's eastern, rebel-held areas.
Before he left, life in Aleppo had seemed strangely normal, despite the bombing, fighting and other problems, Mahmoud says. But now that he has spent time in Turkey, it no longer does. "And I can't get used to it again," he says.
Mahmoud gets most of his news from the city and his family through Facebook and WhatsApp groups. He continues to see Syrians from Aleppo almost every day in the border town, where he is renting a place to stay.
The brother who stayed
His older brother Abdalrahman is still in Aleppo working as a photojournalist, and his photos are regularly published by Reuters.
It is a struggle to keep reporting from inside the besieged city, and fuel shortages make it difficult for him to get to locations when attacks happen. "I have a car, but what little fuel there is left in the city is too expensive,"" he said via a WhatsApp call from inside the city.
When he needs to charge his phone and laptop, Abdalrahman often goes to the homes of other media activists who prepared for the siege by installing solar or wind-powered energy devices.
Abdalrahman is also low on energy himself. There have not been any fruit or vegetables in the besieged areas for some time, he says.
There is also no milk for infants in the city, he says. Abdalraham's seven-month-old son has just started to eat rice porridge and a few other solids, but he is worried that his son now needs his vaccinations, and there aren't any available.
His son was born while the city had a brief period of cease-fire, and when it ended he wanted to move the family to a safer area, but he couldn't find one. "They're bombing everywhere. There is nowhere in the opposition areas that is safe," Abdalrahman says.
"Plus, I love Aleppo — I don't want to leave it," he continues. "I have seen so many people who die every day, everywhere — even in underground bunkers, they are killed. So what is the point of leaving? All I can do is hope and believe that God will protect my family."
Abdalrahman lost two of his best friends within two days last month. They had spent all their time together, often sleeping in the same media office, and after their deaths, he couldn't work for 15 days.
But media organizations kept messaging him for more photos, saying that his country needed him to tell the world what was happening in the city, which spurred him to get back to work. "They helped me to go on," Abdalrahman says. "For this, I am grateful."
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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