Planes and airports are ever-present in Europe and most of the western world. Taking a plane for a weekend trip from Hamburg to Paris or London to Milan is nothing noteworthy. Travelling as means of reaching a further destination is often equated with air travel, without considering what this entails. In 2016, 3.6% of the greenhouse gas emissions of the EU could be linked to air travel. Commercial flights caused about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels in 2018, as reported by McKinsey. There is no denial of the role that aviation plays in the bigger picture of the climate crisis.
As people become richer, they are able to afford more luxuries like travelling and more exotic vacations. The number of passengers flying around the globe has been increasing since the introduction of more affordable air travel in the 20th century and has especially grown exponentially since the mid-2000s. However, since the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020, there has been a rapid decrease in the rate of air travel. Airlines are estimated to suffer a 200 billion dollar loss due to the pandemic, mainly linked to recreational and miscellaneous flights, as well as business trips.
In recent history, the aviation sector has endured several crises, such as the reluctance to use planes after the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the global financial crisis of 2008. In both cases, the market recovered within a couple of years, and the growth of the aviation industry resumed. In the case of the current pandemic, however, the impact is not strictly economic like in 2008, or a short-lived fear like 9/11. We are currently in a transformational era, with the way of how we work and live undergoing a fundamental change. Now that the pandemic seems to be largely over and more and more countries are lifting travel bans, the passenger numbers are increasing again, with people taking more leisure trips. Furthermore, remote work and the optimized use of digital workspaces have made many business trips unnecessary. Online work is often more efficient for employers, as many meetings can be held back to back from the same desk. On the other hand, it allows employees to spend more time with their families by cutting commuting time.
This shift in how we perceive office jobs, especially in the service sector, is one of the biggest lessons learned throughout the Covid pandemic. Employees make demands to be able to work from home on regular basis or reduce their office time significantly. It is expected that the airline sector is going to recover from the shock suffered due to the pandemic when recreational flights take up again, but the exponential growth is most likely not going to reach the pre-pandemic status.
Rethinking mobility and how we travel is an unexpected side product of the pandemic. Many people have enjoyed ‘staycations’ in their home regions or countries that were easy to reach by train or car. Although these developments will most likely not last forever, recent investments into the European rail network and plans to expand the night train lines could lead to more people opting for alternatives to the plane for their next trip.
The modern airplane has been one of the most influential inventions in the last century and has revolutionized travelling for billions of people. In the light of the climate crisis, it might be time to rethink how (often) we use it and maybe learn to cherish the occasional flight, instead of mindlessly jet-setting around the globe at every chance we get.