MOSCOW — Finally, an engagement that Vladimir Putin could enjoy. Wearing dark aviator glasses against the bright sun, the Russian president attended the Russian “Navy Day” parade last Sunday at the Norwegian sea port of Severomorsk. A warship recently put into service fired some salvoes, and sailors responded to Putin’s greeting with three cries of Hurrah!
Reactions like that have become thin on the ground for Putin recently. In his phone calls with Western government leaders the mood has turned steely, the tone sharp. When — even after the death of the 298 passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 — no decisive sign came from the Kremlin that it intended to distance itself from the fighters suspected of having shot the plane down over eastern Ukraine, Brussels too begun discussing tough sanctions against Russia.
Before his appearance at the recent “Navy Day” parade, Putin seemed edgy and tense. After a series of late-night phone calls last week, he offered an apparently improvised video message, struggling for words as he called for an independent investigation of the crash. The video was shown at 1:40 a.m. Moscow time on the Kremlin website and was apparently directed at a Western public and Americans who at that hour had not yet gone to bed rather than to Russians and the pro-Russian fighters in Ukraine.
Two days later, at a meeting of the Russian Security Council, Putin came across to other participants as awkward and stiff.
Some observers took these behaviors as a sign that Putin is also being pressured at home in Russia. Bloomberg had reported the previous week that Russian entrepreneurs were “increasingly frantic” in view of new threats of sanctions and increasing isolation. The 19 richest Russians have already lost $14.5 billion in the crisis, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
But does any of that really have to concern Putin? His popularity ratings are higher than they’ve been in a long time. According to the latest survey by the independent Levada Institute, 86% of Russians support their president's course. That’s a result that would make any politician think twice before changing direction. There is no indication that the results could change if the European Union were to announce that it is halting all trade in arms, and limiting Russia's access to European capital markets and technologies relevant to oil and gas production.
In confidential exchanges, high-ranking members of the president’s administration admit that the fear of sanctions is considerable. “Whoever claims that sanctions don’t matter to us is a complete idiot,” said one member of the inner circle with daily access to Putin. Sanctions would be “very painful” for Russia and would probably plunge the country into lasting recession, “but they would not be deadly.” What Russia needs to do is re-orient itself towards other markets, the insider said.
Putin himself appears to be unimpressed by the threat of new sanctions. He even said on Monday that Russia was the one considering limits on arms imports from the European Union: Russia’s arms industry was “entirely” in a position to produce everything it needed on its own, and needed to “insure itself against the risks of our European partners breaking contracts.”
Mikhail Fradkov, who was Russian Prime Minister during Putin’s first term as president, is all together more skeptical: “If sanctions were to affect the whole financial sector the economy would break down within six months,” he says.
The Kremlin insider also confirms that the president is under major pressure. Radical powers supported by patriotically revolutionized citizens are trying to get Putin to send troops to march across the border into Ukraine. In fact, state-run television networks are keeping such sentiment alive with reports on both verified and invented victims of Kiev’s anti-terror offensive, as well as alleged broken promises by European politicians, and the United States’ attempts at creating splits between Russia and Europe.
Moscow observers don’t currently see any powerful counter-voices within the Kremlin. Since the beginning of his third term in May 2012, Putin has surrounded himself with yes-men, says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist specialized in the Russian elite, who until two years ago was herself a member of Putin’s United Russia party.
She says she has no reason to assume that there has been any split in the inner leadership circle. “In our society, open discussion among the power elite is not something that’s done,” she says, adding that it is not in line with the country’s authoritarian traditions. “You either play along, or you leave.”
Yes, there is some disquiet in society and in the Kremlin as well: both regular folks and oligarchs worry about their prosperity. “But there are moments when people understand that a higher goal is at stake – the renaissance of a great power,” Kryshtanovskaya says.
So, even people in Putin’s closest circle — whose names are on the U.S. sanctions list — are prepared to endure the downsides to policy choices.
Liberals, however, don’t get much of a hearing at the Kremlin these days. When former Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin warned in an interview with the state news agency Tass last week that sanctions and other showdowns with the West could cost Russians one-fifth of their income, his remarks were kept off state-controlled TV, from which more than 90% of Russian citizens get their news.
It is only when remarks such as Kudrin’s also make it into TV news coverage that a possible change in direction could be underway, says Kryshtanovskaya. There has always been a right-wing, reactionary opposition in Russia even if it has received less attention in the West than the liberal, West-oriented opposition, she points out.
Indeed, what some in the West fail to calculate is that conservatives have been putting pressure on Putin since he came to power 15 years ago — only now there are hardly any liberals left to form a counterweight.
Ultimately, any clean break in Putin’s circle of power is unlikely, says political adviser Yevgeny Minchenko who has close ties to the Kremlin. There have always been various camps, between which Putin functions as a sort of moderator.
“I do not believe that an opposition is now forming against the president,” Minchenko said. “That is a naïve hope of the West.”
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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