Geopolitics

Crimea Military Buildup, Plane Debris, China v. NSA

Xi Jinping and his wife with Michelle Obama, her mother and her daughters
Xi Jinping and his wife with Michelle Obama, her mother and her daughters
Worldcrunch

RUSSIAN TROOPS TAKE OVER CRIMEAN NAVAL BASE
Russian troops and members of pro-Russian self-defense groups raided and took over a Ukrainian Naval base in Crimea, the third in the last 48 hours, The Kyiv Post reports. After the early morning raid, acting President Olexandr Turchynov said the Ukrainian military units in Crimea had been ordered to withdraw from the peninsula, citing “threats to the lives and health” of his soldiers.

  • This comes amid reports from U.S. and UK officials that Russian forces might be preparing to invade Eastern and Southern Ukraine, as well as Transnistria, the eastern region of Moldova, The Washington Post reports. “There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transnistria if the decision was made to do that,” NATO's supreme allied commander Gen.Philip Breedlove told The Guardian. According to ITV, Romanian President Traian Basescu asked NATO to “reposition its resources in response to ongoing Russian military operations.” In Moscow, Deputy Defense Minister dismissed claims of a military buildup on the border and said that foreign missions had been sent to inspect their troops, whose numbers fall within the limits of international agreement.

  • President Barack Obama is in the Netherlands today where he is holding a series of meetings with representatives of the G7 countries. Although the planned visit was supposed to focus on nuclear terrorism, the Ukrainian crisis is expected to take center stage, with Obama seeking support for a tougher response to Russia. “We’re united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far,” he said after a first meeting with Dutch PM Mark Rutte. Read more from AP.

  • Meanwhile, the situation in Eastern Ukraine is growing increasingly tense with RT reporting “massive anti-Maidan rallies” in Kharkov, Donetsk, Lugansk and Odessa Sunday, where thousands of people protested against Kiev’s new government, its political agreement with the European Union and the presence of NATO troops. Crimea’s deputy PM claimed that Ukraine had withdrawn 50% of its power supply, denouncing the move as “blackmail.” Read more from Itar-Tass.

AUSTRALIA AND CHINA SPOT POTENTIAL PLANE DEBRIS
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the country’s Royal Air Force had spotted more “objects” that could be debris from Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, about 2,500 kilometers southwest of Perth, as the search operations continue in the South Indian Ocean, Australia’s ABC reports. Earlier today, the crew aboard a Chinese plane also reported having spotted “suspicious objects” in the area. Read more from Xinhua.

EIGHT DEAD IN U.S. MUDSLIDE
At least eight people are now confirmed dead with over a dozen missing after a massive mudslide destroyed some 30 homes Saturday near the town of Oso, Washington,The Seattle Timesreports. According to the local authorities, the number of victims is likely to rise. “I just saw the darkness coming across the road. Everything was gone in three seconds,” a witness told The Daily Herald.

HUNDREDS SENTENCED TO DEATH IN EGYPT
An Egyptian court sentenced to death 529 supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, while acquitting 17 in the second hearing of their trial, AFP reports. But before the sentence can be carried out, the court decision will have to be approved by Egypt’s Grand Mufti, the highest official of Islamic law in a Muslim country. The trial will continue tomorrow, with another 700 accused of attacking people and property and murdering police officers.

JAPAN–U.S. NUCLEAR DEAL
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Barack Obama announced jointly that Tokyo would turn over its stockpile of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium to the United States. Indian newspaper The Economic Times describes the agreement as “a victory for President Barack Obama's efforts to secure nuclear materials around the world.” The joint statement from the two countries says, “This material, once securely transported to the United States, will be sent to a secure facility and fully converted into less sensitive forms,” Read more from Reuters.

MY GRAND-PÈRE'S WORLD

ELECTION OBSERVERS LEAVE AFGHANISTAN
The National Democratic Institute and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have pulled their observers from Afghanistan after last week’s Taliban attack on a luxury Kabul hotel, Reuters reports. According to an Afghanistan election observer, the decision could undermine confidence in the legitimacy of the upcoming April 5 presidential election.

BY THE NUMBERS
Sunday’s French local elections were marked by record low voter turnout and the strength of the far-right National Front party, which gained ground in important cities. Read more from Bloomberg.

VERBATIM
China is demanding an explanation after a report revealed the NSA infiltrated a telecom giant’s servers there. “China has already lodged many complaints with the United States about this. We demand that the United States makes a clear explanation and stop such acts,” the country’s foreign ministry spokesman said today.

FAREWELL
Adolfo Suarez, Spain’s first democratically elected prime minister after the death of right-wing dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, has died at age 81.

MAGIC TRICKS FOR DOGS
Jose Ahonen, a Finnish magician, has released a video of dogs’ reactions to a simple magic trick. Watch it here expand=1].

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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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