KANDAHAR — The young man’s voice comes crackling through, sounding as if it’s so far away that it’s another era entirely. Bent over an old telephone fitted in a box, an old woman wrapped all in black listens hard and asks questions, in between her sobs.
The whole family is gathered around the woman: her two sons, her brother, a nephew and a cousin. They are all crammed in the tiny wooden booth installed by the International Committee of the Red Cross at its headquarters in Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan and the Taliban’s spiritual home.
The young man whose echo was scrambled across the telephone line is named Zakaria. He is being detained more than 500 kilometers away, in the infamous prison of Bagram, the location of a U.S. military base north of Kabul. He was arrested during the summer of 2013 in his home village of Qala Shamir, in one of the most violent districts near Kandahar.
“He was sleeping peacefully at home when they arrived and arrested him in the middle of the night,” recalls Abdul Malik, a cousin who accompanied the rest of his family for the phone call organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Amid daily violence, Afghanistan prepares to vote for a new president Saturday, and the issue of prisoners like Zakaria continues to be a thorn in the side of the relationship between outgoing President Hamid Karzai and the United States. The longstanding Afghan leader has been making a point of denouncing night raids by American troops, part of his strategy to win back support from a public that has never accepted the arbitrary aspect of many arrests or the number of civilians killed and injured during those operations.
A terrible mistake
Since the U.S. ceded control of the Bagram detention center to the Afghan authorities in March 2013, Karzai has ordered the release of 120 prisoners over the objections of Washington. The Americans believe that among those freed are fighters responsible for attacks against NATO troops.
U.S. soldiers at Bagram military base — Photo: United States Navy
But for the Kandahar families gathered at the Red Cross headquarters, the wait continues. In the small courtyard facing the telephone booths, the organization erected a tent of light blue canvas. Some 40 people have been waiting inside since the break of dawn, just to be able to talk for a bit with their loved ones who are imprisoned on the other end of the country.
This is the fourth time in eight months that Zakaria’s family has traveled from Qala Shamir to Kandahar to call him.
Abdul Malik is very talkative. His face covered in a white beard and his hair covered by a black turban, the owner of the village grocery is convinced his cousin is innocent. “Zakaria is not a Taliban. He was arrested by mistake,” he says.
On the night of the raid, it was so warm that Malik was sleeping outside in his courtyard, and is sure there were no fights during the lightning-fast operation. Out of the five arrested that night, Zakaria is the only one who remains in custody.
Whenever they call, Zakaria asks his family to send him books, and says he is not ill-treated. But whether that’s the truth or simply an act of discretion in the event he is being monitored is unclear. The conversations usually avoid sensitive topics. Many families choose not to give their sons bad news, such as the death of a relative, so as not to disturb them further.
The old woman in black is now weeping, after having just hung up the phone. Already, another family is slipping into the small wooden booth, and the Zakarias will be on their way back to Qala Shamir, where war still looms.
There, between the Afghan soldiers posted at the entry of the village and the Taliban hidden nearby, the population is in the proverbial crossfire. “When fights break out, we’re stuck between the two sides,” Malik says.
Thirteen years after they were installed, the telephone booths at the International Committee of the Red Cross still represent a precious chord of humanity in the horror of the Afghanistan war.
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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