Geopolitics

Witness To Horror As Toll Mounts In Lampedusa Immigrant Tragedy

Bodies lined up on the dock in Lampedusa's main port
Bodies lined up on the dock in Lampedusa's main port
Laura Anello

LAMPEDUSA — “Follow me,” said Jesus, “and I will make you fishers of men.” A disturbing parallel is evoked from this famous passage of the Gospel of Matthew, as nets tossed into the sea off the Italian island of Lampedusa fill up with the bodies of men... of women and children.

After the latest tragic end Thursday to the journey toward Europe of would-be immigrants, the Coast Guard was working into the night, unloading onto the docks body after body: dozens and dozens of victims, with their eyes wide open, arms rigid, bellies swollen.

In bags of green, blue, white and silver — otherwise cheerful colors — bodies are lined up side-by-side on the dock in Lampedusa's main port. On the very same dock, in fact, Pope Francis just weeks ago had made headlines around the world by greeting migrants who had arrived to the refugee center. They sang, shook the Pope’s hand and told their stories of fleeing from hunger and war.

Now, their brothers and sisters are here, having died in the turquoise sea just off Coniglio Island, a paradise for tourists, whose beach is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. The victims are mostly Eritreans and Somalis who left three days ago from the Libyan port of Misurata. At 8 a.m. Thursday, the only people on these crystalline waters were fishermen when the trawler ferrying the migrants drowned in flames.

Some 500 men, women, and children were crammed into this vessel, barely 20 meters long, when somebody lit a a blanket on fire, in an attempt to send an S.O.S. as none of the phones on board had any signal. Moments later, the keel's petrol turned the boat into a funeral pyre. Screams, prayers, tears, and panic followed as people rushed to the other side of the boat to escape the flames.

The trawler then capsized and sunk, throwing some passengers into the water and trapping others. In just a few short minutes, this warm stretch of Mediterranean turned into the river Styx. The living tangled together among the dead, hands raised to call for help, keeping afloat on already drowned heads, wreckage, and bags.

The fishermen were the first to arrive, to rescue the survivors — and also the first to raise questions. As the 47 survivors he rescued disembarked at the dock, one man shouted: “Why did it take the Coast Guard an hour to arrive? How is it that they have such sophisticated means to pinpoint boats thousands of kilometers off the coast, yet they failed to see a fire close by and come quickly to rescue the survivors?”

Rising waters

The boat was indeed incredibly close to the shore, just 800 meters — and sometimes rescue efforts are as far away as Malta or the African coast. Questions that will linger.

The first count was 10 bodies. But the number would quickly multiply as Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini held back her tears: “The sea is full. The sea is full of bodies.”

As the sun went down from the shore, boats could be seen all around, rising and falling on choppy waters with their passengers: seven Coast Guard boats, others from the Guardia di Finanza, national police, fire brigade, and even private boats. All of them searching for, and finding, more and more bodies to pull up.

By Thursday night, there were 127 coffins lined up in the hangar of the airport and 155 survivors in the reception center. But, according to those rescued, there were at least 500 people on board. That leaves more than 200 missing. At least 100 were located on the seabed, 37 meters below, where the boat sank at noon on Thursday. “There are so many women and children,” said the divers, who resumed operations Friday.

Meanwhile in Lampedusa, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano and Assembly Speaker Laura Boldrini were among the political leaders who'd arrived. Pope Francis declared his horror at what has happened, as did Italy's President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano.

Friday saw a statement of national mourning announced, yet to the chorus of indignation, of solidarity, of appeals to Europe about migrants like these, together with the words of these survivors, raise the spectre of a much more specific disgrace. “There were three fishing boats, we asked them for help, but they kept going," said one survivor, and confirmed by others. "They let us die.”

Interior Minister Alfano played this down, saying, “They didn’t see them, otherwise they would have intervened. The Italians are big-hearted people.”

Prosecutors in the region have already set wheels in motion, identifying and arresting a young Tunisian among the survivors for being one of the human traffickers. The emergency plan is to transfer the refugees already in the reception center, which risks bursting at the seams, to another after the arrival of another 463 migrants on Thursday night — who all arrived safe and sound.

In the meantime, the weather is changing and the sea is rising. The fishermen on the port sniff the wind and say a storm is coming. Dawn was bound to bring light to the island, and more bodies.

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Future

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

commons.wikimedia.org

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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