SUEZ CANAL â€" In Port Said, Egypt, at the mouth of the Suez Canal, three private guards, one from Romania and two from Ukraine, board the Monte Rosa, a 20,000-ton Swiss tanker captained by Viacheslav Gavrilov. Their destination is Sri Lanka by way of the Gulf of Aden, a 12-day journey.
The captain, a 44-year-old from St. Petersburg, heads a crew of Ukrainian and Russian officers, Filipino sailors and a Burmese electrician. There is not a single Swiss person among them. Only English and Russian are spoken.
Gavrilov and his crew have good reason to bring the guards aboard. In the Gulf of Aden, Somali pirates, often disguised as fishermen, stalk yachts and merchant ships to rob them or take their passengers hostage. Several years ago there was even talk in Switzerland about deploying the military to protect the country's ocean vessels.
As the Monte Rosa nears the southern exit of the Suez Canal, the Filipino crew members, armed with tongs and heavy gloves, unfurl rolls of razor-sharp barbed wire, which they wrap round the hull. The Romanian guard, Andrei, oversees the operation from behind dark sunglasses. The 37-year-old former police officer was contracted out by Seagull Maritime Security, an Israeli company based in Malta and Cyprus.
"This work serves primarily as a deterrent, but the owner who neglects these precautions may be at risk," he says. "Pirates are aware of the value of cargo carried through maritime sites. They can see which ships are poorly protected, and pounce on their prey with fast boats."
Early in the morning, crew members perform a pratice drill. At the sound of a siren, they quickly gather in the "citadel," a difficult-to-reach hideaway in the hold that has been fitted with armored doors and stocked with about 72 hours worth of food and water. The access walkways are usually greased to slow down would-be attackers.
"I know a sailor who spent six months in the hands of pirates," one of the Filipino sailors explains. "He was skin and bone when they released him."
Chugging along at 13 knots, the ship heads for the island of Barr Kabir Musa, off Sudan, where the security team takes delivery of weapons and ammunition. In the dark, a fast boat docks the Monte Rosa, handing over a box full of Serbian-made Zastava machine guns, ammunition and protective equipment (helmets with GoPro, vests, etc.).
Six barrels are filled with water and used as shields. The men carry out an exercise with live ammunition. Their targets are a pair of manikins dressed in work clothes, sunglasses and helmet.
The Swiss vessel is due to arrive in Djibouti the next day. But it already faces clear and present danger. Through binoculars, a fishing boat shows up in the opposite direction. Seven or eight people are sitting in the back. Andrei, the Romanian guard, is not reassuring. "It could swing past but then come back for us at nightfall," he says.
Paying for private protection
The European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) has a base in Djibouti from which it patrols several million square kilometers of water in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. Switzerland plays no part in the military operations despite lobbying efforts carried out in 2008 by the Swiss ship owner's association after several close-call incidents involving Swiss-owned ships. In December 2008, a ship called the Sabina was followed by pirate fast boats while traveling from Italy to the Gulf of Aden. Its calls for help went unanswered. Fortunately, the would-be attackers eventually turned away. Three months later, the Nyon, a Swiss cargo ship carrying Ukrainian iron ore, had a similar experience.
Others, however, argued that deploying soldiers would only exaccerbate the problem, that they might "cause carnage," as one military strategy expert from the University of Zurich suggested. A better strategy, he told Le Temps, would be to put Swiss boats under Russian or American flags. Questions were also raised about Switzerland's famous neutrality. What would happen, for example, if Swiss soldiers took pirates as prisoners?
In the end, the Federal Council decided against the proposal. As a result, shipping companies like Swiss Chem Tankers, the Zurich-based firm that owns the Monte Rosa, have had to seek private security assistance. Andrei and his colleagues are a case in point. Their services for this particular trip cost $16,700.
"With private guards, costs are higher, but they get passed on to whoever contracted the shipment," says Michael Eichmann, a spokesperson with Swiss Chem Tankers.
Arriving off Sri Lanka, the Monte Rosa remains in international waters because of the presence of weapons on board. A special maritime agent is sent out to collect the guards and bring them to shore, where they are escorted through Sri Lankan customs.
The Monte Rosa, loaded with Moroccan phosphoric acid, resumes its journey through stormy waters, this time to Kakinada, India. There it will take on new cargo and sail to Indonesia before finally returning to Hamburg via the Suez Canal, for which it will need new guards, a new round of emergnecy drills, and new rollls of barbed wire.
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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