WARSAW — While protests swept Maidan Square in Kiev, both Polish and German media reported the same storyline: Ukraine was overthrowing a bloody dictator and changing its course toward the West. German politicians, much like their Polish counterparts, made fiery speeches and pushed the European Union to address a "serious offer” to Ukrainians.
The pro-Ukrainian climate in Poland only gained strength after the annexation of Crimea. In Germany, however, something very different happened: media commentators, known for their pro-Russian inclination, became suddenly very silent.
For more than 10 years, Berlin shaped its relations with Moscow according to the concept of a "partnership for modernization," which in practice is a dense network of contacts, transactions, trade, financial and political agreements entwining Russia that was supposed to make the Kremlin a more predictable geopolitical player.
The annexation of Crimea was proof that this doctrine was a spectacular failure. The subsequent panic that overtook German think tanks, commentators and diplomats was a result of the lack of plan B. In Berlin, nobody ever could have imagined that Russia would turn out to be so aggressive.
Moreover, any escalation of the conflict in Ukraine would demand a shift of funding from infrastructure or social policy into security, which for Germany means going backwards on the path it took after the unification of the country in 1990.
Thanks to an effective pro-Russia lobby and out of fear of war, any warm feelings towards Ukraine were superseded by empathy for Russia and its “justified security interests.”
But unexpectedly, it turned out that the “partnership for modernization” worked the other way around: it ties not Putin's but Merkel's hands.
Independent from facts, the majority of Germans is persuaded that their country is economically dependent on Russia, even though in reality the Russian market is less important than the Dutch, Italian or Polish ones. It is, however, quite valuable to some big concerns who have easy access to the Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Ever since the era of Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian leader who shaped German and European politics in the second half of the 19th century, Germans had seen Russia not as a partner but a colossus on feet of clay, which would eventually crumble from within.
During World War I, Germans tried to speed up this process, pitting Polish or Ukrainian allies against Moscow.
Today, German conservatives transfer their fascination for pre-communist Russia to the contemporary Russian Federation, seeing in Mr. Putin a latter-day czar. The left feeds itself on sentimentality after the USRR and is shocked by the “fascist” politicians participating in the new Ukrainian government.
The TV debates on the conflict between Kiev and Moscow host exclusively Russians and Germans. News comes from Moscow-based correspondents, Russian diplomats and Russian correspondents in Germany. Everybody knows something about Russia and it is usually something positive. Meanwhile, on the German map of memory, there is a black hole where Ukraine should be.
The German policy towards Russia reached its apogee of absurdity after a group of OSCE monitors -- including four Germans -- were kidnapped by pro-Russian separatists from the east of Ukraine. The Kremlin reacted explaining that it had lost control over the pro-Russian fighters in Sloviansk, until finally Merkel had to call Putin to ask for help. After the monitors were released, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced that Russia had returned on the path of compromise and diplomacy.
Symbols of weakness
Germans, who try to mediate between everybody -- the USA and Russia, Russia and the EU, themselves and Russia – are trying to pull off quite a show of acrobatics. Instead of taking the initiative and building a common front against Russia, they do everything to maintain the status quo — not the one from February, but the one Russia is recreating every day.
The current counterproductive system of sanctions against Russia was guided by German influence, and consequences were symbolic rather than dissuasive. If they were really meant to stop Russia, they would have been severe from the very start.
In reality, more than sanctions, it’s only the internal situation in Russia that stops Putin from annexing Eastern Ukraine. He knows that once conquered, Donbas would have to stay inside Russia and could not serve as a card in negotiations with the West. Russian public opinion is now so immersed in nationalism that it would never forgive the handing back of any overtaken territory. That is why Putin prefers instead to destabilize Ukraine and push it towards federalization.
Now the German Minister of Foreign Affairs suggests a roundtable solution which would not include either Russia or pro-Russian separatists. It is like organizing the round table in Poland in 1989 without the representatives of the communist regime.
Rather than resolving the conflict, this idea aims at postponing the moment where Germany will have to lean towards the American proposals of harsher actions against Russia.
That is the strategy of one of the most important members of the EU and NATO, whose place should be clearly on the Western side of the conflict, not somewhere between Washington and Moscow.
The times when Germans could lead the European Union or be a serious partner inside the NATO structures are gone. Today, the telephone is the main tool of German politics. The number it dials connects straight to Moscow.
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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