Before and after coronavirus: Aviation arrives at a crossroads

Due to increased travel restrictions and rising enochlophobia (fear of crowds), 2020 revenue loss is now expected to approach and possibly exceed $252b., a 44% drop compared to 2019.

Air planes of German carrier Lufthansa are parked at the airport in Frankfurt (photo credit: REUTERS/KAI PFAFFENBACH)
Air planes of German carrier Lufthansa are parked at the airport in Frankfurt
With the spread of the coronavirus, the world has been consistently finding itself at more of a standstill than the day before. In late March, the number of infected people worldwide was 750,000 with fewer than 50,000 deaths. Although many countries have started to see a slowing trend, to date, infections have reached a staggering 3.5 million, and more than 250,000 deaths have been confirmed. The severity of COVID-19 and public fear have prompted isolation and quarantine protocols as a way to slow the virus’s spread, but it has consequently battered countless businesses and the world economy as a result.
One of the industries taking an enormous financial hit is aviation. In early March, the International Air Transport Association expected a $113 billion loss in revenue. Due to increased travel restrictions and rising enochlophobia (fear of crowds), 2020 revenue loss is now expected to approach and possibly exceed $252b., a 44% drop compared to 2019.
As expected, the industry’s considerable losses paired with the accompanying virus restrictions has had a significant effect on Israel’s air travel. The Airports Authority’s decision to ban entry to non-citizens caused a 30% drop in passenger traffic, and the cancellation of more than 2,000 flights in the first two weeks of March portended an indefinite almost complete halt of commercial aviation. Ben-Gurion Airport furloughed 70% of their manual workforce due to partial or entire closures of some of its terminals, including half of the main international terminal. The duration of these changes is still up in the air.
Although the virus is something we all want to get past, its presence might reveal a window of opportunity for airlines to embrace environmentally friendly innovations to diminish future carbon emissions, which are expected to at least triple from their current levels by 2050.
Before the virus
Let’s take a step back to the time before the containment of the virus reached the top of everyone’s priorities and flying was still in high demand. Carbon dioxide emissions from commercial and industrial air travel exceeded 900 million metric tons in 2018, making up 2.5% of global carbon emissions. While that may not seem like a lot in comparison to other greenhouse gas contributors, like the use of vehicles and for agricultural purposes, plane emissions are expected to increase sharply and take up around 27% of the world’s carbon output profile. Even if the aviation sector will meet its 1.5° C target by 2050, it will still have consumed 12% of the global carbon budget according to a 2016 study.
But to proactively quell the higher projected levels of airline-sourced carbon emissions, governments from nearly 200 countries (in the Paris climate agreement) adopted a plan that outlined voluntary measures to reduce those impacts by implementing various methods of carbon offsetting. This entails financially compensating for emissions by supporting projects or programs that involve renewable energy strategies. In this case, this usually translates to an “environmental tax – airlines and passengers paying more for the pollutive nature of the fuel.
But even with airline fuel becoming gradually more efficient, the quickly increasing and unceasing demand for flights is nullifying the environmental benefits from the enhanced fuel efficiency. A case of Jevons paradox.
Complicating climate change responses
Although worldwide data concerning the decreased carbon emissions are still inconclusive because of the coronavirus’s ongoing status, researchers have seen that China’s carbon dioxide emissions have decreased by 25% over a four-week period following their nationwide response. So, while it may seem like a no-brainer to pursue cleaner alternative energies after seeing the positive ecological results, this may be easier said than done, especially in terms of aviation.
Despite the drastic declines in air travel and, therefore, emissions, the airline industry is considering lessening its goals to mitigate climate change for the sake of regaining its financial footing. Therefore, it is more likely that businesses, including in the aviation industry, will prioritize financial recovery by the quickest means possible over continuing their prior obligations toward more sustainable endeavors.
With oil prices dropping, it may also deter airlines from investing additional funds into more fuel-efficient aircraft projects, as oil has been one of the industry’s largest expenses. So, if the cost of fuel continues to plummet, the time it would likely take to adopt more fuel-efficient and cleaner jets will be prolonged. And since air travel is expected to rebound with a vengeance after fears of the virus subside, aviation emissions will just continue to worsen, producing a major setback for hitting predetermined climate emission reduction targets.
A window seat of opportunity
But despite the bleak, uncertain future of the aviation industry’s recovery, we should not lose sight of our goals for environmental restoration. Seeing the short-term positive changes our environment has experienced following the reduction of our many activities should not be taken for granted just for us to slide back into our pollutive wheelhouse.
In Richmond, British Columbia, a small domestic airline, Harbour Air, initiated its first all-electric test flight. Although the flight duration was only four minutes, it was a major step forward in the field of sustainable transportation, which has not seen a significant developmental change in 50 years. Norway has even promised all of their short-distance flights will be electrically powered by 2040.
While the idea to electrify fleets of aircraft is an ambitious one and may not be quite so promising at this time, it is important to explore its future implications and obstacles, such as its limited battery capacities. Although we should keep our expectations for recovery solutions grounded and attainable, perhaps there is some middle ground between optimal financial recovery and tending to our environment.
ZAVIT – Science and Environment News Agency