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Giving flying back its wings 

Reductions in air travel have been an undoubted boon for the environment during a COVID pandemic that has seen international travel shrink enormously.  During the first half of 2020 CO2 emissions fell by 8.8% or 1,551 megatons, compared to the same period ub 2019; about 200 megatons could be attributed to the aviation industry. 

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Of course, for airlines the fallout has been catastrophic, with several airlines going under and many more turning to governments for financial support.

While air travel might seem a somewhat frivolous activity, it contributes significantly to global economic vitality. Research from Oxford Economics shows that for every $1 spent on business travel, an additional $12.50 is generated across the economy. What's more, research from Harvard found that business travel was actually crucial to the economy.  Even in this age of Zoom calls and video conferencing, they found that tacit knowledge is best exchanged face-to-face.

But it is not only the economy that benefits from international air travel, we, as individuals, do too. While not based on solid research, the list of ways in which we benefit from international travel certainly resonates with me:

  1. You regain your curiosity.
  2. You gain confidence.
  3. You learn to take things slowly.
  4. You realize it’s OK to fail.
  5. You have better stories to tell.
  6. You learn to focus on what you can control—your responses.
  7. You better appreciate what you have at home.
  8. But you also gain humility and perspective.
  9. You become a better communicator.
  10. You become friends with people around the world.
  11. You learn to trust your gut.
  12. You see that nobody’s life is perfect.
  13. You become more creative.
  14. You uncover new passions.
  15. You start to see the beauty in small, everyday occurrences.
  16. You gain confidence.
  17. You find love (even if just temporarily).
  18. You realize that experiences are way more valuable than objects.
  19. You stop watching so much TV.
  20. You better appreciate the internet, but realize that you must limit its use.
  21. You become painfully aware that you cannot please everyone.
  22. You become more employable.
  23. But you also set yourself up to be your own boss.
  24. You realize that almost everyone wants the same things.
  25. You also see that people are very different—and that’s OK (for the most part).
  26. You see that money is not the solution to all of life’s problems.
  27. You understand what it means to be truly generous.

Of course, whether these benefits are realised depends entirely on the indivivduals, and in fact, much of today's tourism will not facilitate any of the benefits listed above...


Getting back into the air

Whether for economic or social reasons, it's therefore perhaps no surprise that there is a growing desire to get people travelling again. Thus growing attention is being given to fast and accurate testing of passengers before and after they board. London Heathrow just announced tests that will deliver results within an hour, with the idea being to initially offer such tests to those passengers flying to regions that demand a pre-departure test. 

Faster still is an approach by Israeli startup NanoScent which has a device that promises to provide reliable results within just 30 seconds: users breathe through a breathalyzer style device into a bag, with the breath then filtered over sensors that are able to sniff out the virus with reliability of around 85%.

Finland is using yet a different approach: sniffer dogs are trained to hunt down the unique signature given off by COVID-19, and have a close to 100% hit rate. 

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Safe from the virus on board

There are also innovations to ensure passenger are safe from the virus once on board. Whether it is students Sum Ming Wong and Kin Pong Li who have developed a self-sanitising door handle that uses light to clean and sterilize fixtures and fittings, or Dimer’s GermFalcon which utilizes hospital-proven UVC light to quickly and effectively kill germs on all high touch surfaces of an airplane. 

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Lessening the environmental impact?

While the environmental performance of aircraft has improved significantly over the past decades - noise emissions are down by 50% compared to 10 years ago and carbon emissions are down by 50% compared to 50 years ago, it remains a huge contributor to CO2 emissions. The global aviation industry is responsible for 12% of CO2 emissions from all transports sources (compared to 74% from road transport), and around 2% of all human-induced CO2 emissions. Interestingly - or perhaps rather, alarmingly, making their engines more fuel-efficient and thus cutting CO2 emissions has a dark side to it: it causes more, whiter, and longer-lasting contrails to be generated, and these creating an often-invisible thermal blanket of cloud across, as recent research indicates: "Though lasting for only a short time, these “contrails” have a daily impact on atmospheric temperatures that is greater than that from the accumulated carbon emissions from all aircraft since the Wright Brothers first took to the skies more than a century ago."

Drawing on lessons from nature, Airbus is exploring for planes to fly in formation - like geese - thus benefiting from the downdraft which is anticipated to reduce fuel consumption by 5-10%. And the possibility of fully electric aircraft seems to be coming within reach: a prototype of a fully electric aircraft was shown at the 2019 airshow in Paris

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So it seems that while we might be able to start packing out suitcases again soon, we would do well to head the words of Eric Scigliano, one of our experts, who commented on receving the newsletter, "Less travel, but more focused and immersive, would be better for the traveler and the planet." Indeed. Thank youf ro that 


If you are aware of any disruptive sustainable innovations and think they would be a good fit for the Katerva awards, please nominate them here.


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