Debt, Blackmail, Catharsis: Greek Drama Puts Nation, World Economy Back On Cliff

Analysis: The pause for air after last week’s EU summit has abruptly ended with the Greek government’s announcement of plans to hold a referendum on the debt bailout. This view from Germany says all bets are off. Again.

Kai Strittmatter

Following last Thursday's meeting in Brussels when the new rescue package for Greece was approved, an editorial in the Athens newspaper Kathimerini stated that there was one good thing about the agreement: it diminished the climate of uncertainty. "At least for the time being the fog has lifted and we know where we stand," the article said before ending on a prophetic note: the country would now have a "short time" to catch its breath. But that short? Not even a week?

Nobody saw it coming. Now we will wait for the confidence vote set this Friday in the Greek parliament, and the referendum on the rescue plan likely for January. At every turn along the way, the possibility has suddenly returned that what Europe and indeed the rest of the world were seeing as a done deal might fall apart. Even representatives from Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou's own party, the Pasok, were taken by surprise by the move.

Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos was in the loop, however, and his words revealed quite a bit about the motives of the move. "I've had enough of those polls that show a majority against the rescue program but in favor of staying in the euro zone," Venizelos said on Tuesday before heading for a hospital to be treated for stomach pains. Greece's leaders are exhausted, and tired of being demonized at home for decisions Europe is forcing on them.

The government no longer wants to bear responsibility alone. First, the conservative opposition party Nea Dimokratia resisted all attempts at creating a national unity government. ND party leader Antonis Samaras called for new elections and said he would never become "an accomplice" of the Prime Minister's policies. More and more functionaries were threatening their own governing Pasok party with rebellion. Seven members of the national party council called for Papandreou to step down, and one of its top members, Milena Apostolaki, announced she was quitting the party.

Her move meant that right before the confidence vote the Pasok parliamentary majority was reduced to just two seats. The Prime Minister was ever more isolated. So now he wants to share the burden of responsibility with all Greeks. "Let Greek citizens decide the fate of the country," said Papandreou, citing his trust in his fellow citizens.

This is either the last good ace he's holding, or as Kathimerini put it: "a dangerous chess move." If after months of a bitter campaign and violent demonstrations, more turbulence and instability on the markets, the worst case scenario was borne out: the Greek people vote "No" on the referendum.

Can we trust the polls?

A poll by the To Vima newspaper showed that 60% of those Greeks polled were against the debt write-down hammered out in Brussels, and the new austerity package that went with it. The reasons are not only new cuts but also a greater European role in monitoring the implementation of the reforms that had some of Papandreou's opponents branding him a national traitor.

But it's too early to pin too much meaning on the results of that poll. If the government survives Friday's confidence vote, then it will spend the following weeks hammering home to Greeks what a "No" could mean, such as a disorderly state bankruptcy with catastrophic social consequences and a possible exit from the euro zone.

We do not yet know the exact phrasing of the referendum's question, but the government's strategy appears to be to turn it into a vote about whether or not the Greeks want to stay in the euro zone – something that three out of every four Greeks say they want. Few want the return of the old Greek currency, the drachma.

Finance minister Venizelos said that Greece was in the throes of a drama and the referendum constituted catharsis. "Of course the Greek people can vote No," he said. "But the consequences of that must be clear to them."

Opponents from both the right and left are now talking about the "intimidation" and the "blackmail" of the move. ND speaker Yiannis Michelakis called Papandreou "dangerous," accusing him of "flipping Greece's future in Europe into the air like a coin."

For its part, the government is speculating on whether or not it now has more leverage with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The details of the rescue plan have not yet been ironed out, and now that the terrifying possibility of a "No" vote hovers over proceedings like a ghost, it's entirely possible that Athens could win one or two key concessions.

read original article in German

Photo - Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας

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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

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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