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COVID-19 and Air Travel: an opportunity to rethink global air transport systems more sustainably

The tourism, hospitality, and travel industries are the world’s largest employers, along with the energy industry. Since this area of business is a non-essential industry, it stood defenseless against the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, global international tourist arrivals dropped by 98% in May of 2020, as flights and cruises were the first to be restricted due to their high risk of disease transmission. While the pandemic has led to an unprecedented decline in air travel, it also offers an opportunity to analyze the importance and sustainability of air travel.

Air travel increasingly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, aviation emitted one gigaton of carbon dioxide every year before the pandemic, and tourism contributed 8% to total global emissions, with flying as the greatest contributor. Nevertheless, these environmental challenges are often ignored or downplayed in cost-benefit analyses of air travel. Global air transport also increases the risk of pathogen spread. This has been exemplified by COVID-19 and past infectious diseases such as malarias, MERS, or SARS.

Furthermore, air travel tends to generate small and sometimes even negative profit margins for businesses. Significant subsidies have been granted to aircraft manufacturers, infrastructure providers, and airlines in order to keep the industry alive, even before COVID-19 hit. Finally, while air travel is a crucial service for global connectivity, only a small percentage of the world population fly internationally every year. Cheaper travel tends to encourage the same travelers to travel more frequently, often through private aircrafts, rather than empowering more people to fly. All of these factors make it questionable for air traveling to return to “business-as-usual” after the pandemic.

There are multiple alternatives to continue providing air traveling services while minimizing its negative consequences. First, as a response to the pandemic, airlines reduced flights and retired old and inefficient aircrafts. This can be beneficial as it results in less greenhouse gas emissions and the use of cleaner aircrafts.

Then, travel bubbles began to emerge between countries in 2020, where countries agreed to allow reciprocal travel agreements to eliminate mandatory quarantines. While there is still limited literature on travel bubbles, they can be defined as all travel along a particular route where a set of countries agree to open their borders to each other while keeping borders with other countries closed. Travel bubbles emerged as a response to the pandemic, but they have the potential to be used as an alternative for sustainable tourism. For instance, travel bubbles within countries could encourage individuals to explore places closer to home, reducing both the carbon footprint and travel-related risks for individuals.

Overall, promising alternatives for sustainable air travel include focusing on backyard tourism and developing responsible green behavior through technology choices, eco-innovative products, and alternate energy transport systems. Priority should be set on landlocked travel bubbles, decarbonized vehicles, and the use of electric aircrafts for short distance air travel. Finally, it is worth considering shrinking the global air transport system, and reducing subsidies and air transport capacity.

Written by Gwen Aubrac

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