eyes on the U.S.

Flaws And All, The World Will Miss Barack Obama

President Obama was, on many levels, a major disappointment. But his legacy is one of grace and integrity in a political world that grows uglier by the day.

Bye bye Barack
Bye bye Barack
Richard Herzinger

BERLIN — We will miss him dearly.

Barack Obama will have come full circle on his next visit to Germany in November, this time coming at the very end of his second and final term in office. His first visit to Germany in August of 2008 did, after all, mark the beginning of "Obamania" around the world, this boundless euphoria that was ignited by the man onto whom we had pinned our hopes — even we Germans — even before he was elected for the first time.

His upcoming visit will, once more, feature little more than symbolism, just like eight years ago for his stirring speech in front of the Siegessäule victory column in Berlin, where he made the case for the moral and political renewal of the U.S. and the West. It will be even more symbolic — only this time because he will no longer wield any political power, even as we will know who will succeed him.

But in Obama's case, symbolism is not a trivial matter. If there is one thing that he managed to preserve in his eight years of an exhausting and politically rather unsuccessful tenure, it is his ability to rhetorically lift political issues up into the sphere of morally philosophical abstraction.

He recently demonstrated this dichotomy when he delivered a eulogy at the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres. By elevating Peres to the realms of the role model in the efforts to build peace between Israelis and Palestinians, he managed to, indirectly, portray current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a war-hungry saboteur of Peres' legacy.

Just for a moment, Obama's rhetoric brilliance let us forget that he had actually failed across the board with his high-flying plans for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

President Obama, in general, did not even come close to fulfilling his ambitious objectives. In fact, the world is actually further removed from achieving these goals than when Obama highlighted these problems.

Leading from behind — Photo: White House

Nuclear disarmament is one example of this. In spite of the controversial nuclear deal with Iran, Tehran is allowed to drive forward conventional armament and intensify its military aggression on Syria.

Obama had offered Russia a "new beginning" of a cooperative relationship but Vladimir Putin exploited the president's credulity to position himself as the main hostile global political opponent of the U.S.

The Middle East in particular demonstrates how Obama's redefinition of the role of the U.S. "leading from behind" created a global political vacuum, which is being increasingly filled with destructive powers.

This helps explain why Obama is less proud of what he has achieved than of what he failed to do — namely embroil the U.S. in another armed conflict. He has stated that he feels satisfied to have refused raiding Assad's troops to curtail his military expansion, against the suggestions of the Washington establishment. But it was this decision that actually escalated the rate of killings in Syria.

And yet, despite these catastrophic developments, Obama still point-blank refuses to accept the basic rule that violent, authoritarian powers cannot be forced into accepting compromises through coercion and believable threats.

His belief that an appeal to common sense and reconciliation of interests will, in the long run, be more successful than hostile confrontation, marks him as a hardened idealist.

But this also stands in stark contrast to his apparent cold sense of "realism," as seen when he told The Atlantic"s Jeffrey Goldberg that defending the Ukraine against Russian aggression was not one of the "core interests' of the U.S.

Instead, it was the great and noble goals of humankind, such as saving the planet from climate change, that took priority over championing individual nations aspiring to the values of Western democracy.

JFK analogy

Success on domestic affairs level is also pretty thin on the ground. The only policy achievement that stands out is his health care reform, although it is not clear if even that will survive in its current form.

If you were to look for a case of an American president in whom the chasm between the glamorous appeal as an individual leader and their actual, palpable political success, one can only think of John F. Kennedy.

While the Western world adored the young and charismatic president, JFK failed in the Cuban invasion at the Bay of Pigs and laid the foundations for the disastrous military involvement of U.S. troops in Vietnam.

Kennedy also hesitated to act decisively in the biggest issues of his time on the home front, namely the eradication of racial discrimination. As for JFK"s successor, Lyndon Johnson, his rather successful domestic record was instead overshadowed by the Vietnam War.

Kennedy's rise to mythical status for posterity was of course also helped along by the fact that he was assassinated rather early in his term. The Obama aura has survived the entirety of two rather sobering terms and could, in future, reveal its true potential.

Even diehard Obama opponents will very soon come to dearly miss his presence at the helm of the most powerful nation in the world. This is due less to the content of his policies than to the noble attitude he has displayed with such superior ease.

Obama not only emanates a cool kind of confidence, but also integrity, honesty as well as fairness and humanity. His political career has not been blighted by any scandals or affairs, he was never found to have lied openly or embezzled funds, he never sought gain by belittling or directing personal insults at his political opponents.

Effortless cool — Photo: White House

He lived the basic bourgeois virtues and relaxed self-evident modernity which was expressed in his stylishly genteel appearances and aesthetically demanding civility. This almost fairy-tale-like political career seems to belong to a different age, especially in light of the mud-slinging contest his successors have engaged in, and the more general debasement of political and social manners.

In the months and years after his retirement, we might even begin to ask ourselves if this, his era, was indeed real or just a dream.

But this is also evidence that Obama's pathos, orientated towards unity and reconciliation, was unable to stop the disintegration of political and societal institutions or the increasingly dangerous polarization of American society. And this goes beyond the fact that the presidency of a black man, inevitably perhaps, reanimated latent racial prejudice.

It is only now that reality is finally showing its ugly face, while the same face was hidden from us to some degree, bathed in the soft light of beauty that Obama brought to his nation.

In the end, Barack Obama was probably always more of an inspiration than a politician. In some ways you may even call him an anti-politician. But it is a simple truth that the human race, from time to time, needs the embodiment of hope to believe that the world can become a better place. That decency and honesty can be found at the very top of politics.

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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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