EDITORIAL: Green skies, but not empty skies, is one of COVID-19’s most important lessons

Greta Thunberg’s vision for a “no fly” world has abruptly turned into a reality. Now, at least, we can all see how awful it is and why it is not the answer.

I attended a friend’s funeral recently that was 2,000 miles from my home in Virginia. Our eldest daughter is due to be married in London, 4,000 miles away. Neither of these trips would be feasible without the ability to fly. The global air transport industry—and airlines specifically—allows us to conduct business, to celebrate, to mourn and to connect.

It is that last ability—connection—that has been the greatest gift of airlines to people, most especially the rise in the low-cost sector. LCCs and ultra-LCCS have fueled air transport growth around the world as people who had never flown have embraced the freedom of affordable, safe, quick travel. Ultimately, when the pandemic recedes and the world stabilizes, those people will want to reclaim that right to fly.

There will be many difficult obstacles to restoring the global air transport system, but carbon emissions’ targets should not be among them.

The air transport industry, far ahead of other industries and long before the COVID-19 outbreak, has set its carbon offsetting and reduction plan through CORSIA. These are real and meaningful targets that should continue to be pursued rigorously.

But broader, deeper emissions initiatives will be impossible to achieve by the air transport industry alone. The UK, for instance, has set a 2050 zero-net carbon goal for country and there is no exception for aviation. UK Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps told me in a meeting in Washington earlier in March that he realized that this was “a hell of an ask” for aviation. But he added that he believed in technology and that the answers lie in our minds to create. All governments should be acting that way, individually and in coordination, to keep aviation in step with their environment policies while recognizing this industry has unique requirements that require unique solutions.

This cannot be done without government leadership and funding, a collective effort in research & development, and pro-aviation tax policies.

Miss Thunberg could support aviation’s continued quest towards net-zero goals by helping to promote the activities that support it. She could, for instance, join an all-biofuel flight when networks are restored and highlight the need for global government investment in a stronger, cheaper sustainable aviation fuel supply.

Her alternative, no-fly world, we now see, is a dark and unacceptable place where humans cannot physically connect, transport goods, food and medical supplies, and advance. Video conferencing and Skype are not the long-term substitutes for a handshake to seal a deal, a hug for a friend or relative in grief, or to share a kiss in celebration.

Human mass travel cannot regress to the days of only boats, buses and trains—all of which have their own environmental footprint. And air transport must not return to becoming an elitist activity. Our almost empty skies are proof of that.

Karen Walker/ATW [email protected]

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.


1 Comment
Well stated Karen. When the aerospace industry gets shuttered, there are many more industries (resorts, hotels, restaurants, etc) that will significantly shrink and employment in service industries will be devastated.