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March 16, 2022

Covid’s effect on long-haul flights will have a big impact on aviation emissions

First the pandemic, now the war. Long-distance flying was not expected to recover until 2024, but now the wait could be longer. As a result, aviation emissions are decreasing.

By Dave Keating

In January 2022, the European Travel Commission, a tourism promotion organisation, had good news and bad news for the aviation industry. The good news was that its research showed air travel within the EU was predicted to recover to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2022. The bad news was that long-haul intercontinental travel would not recover until 2024.

The worst of the pandemic may be over, for now, but consumers are still feeling nervous about booking expensive long-haul trips. Not only is there the concern about having to cancel them, there are also more onerous vaccination and testing requirements for destinations outside one’s own country, or outside the EU in the case of Europeans. Travel within the EU has been relatively hassle-free for the vaccinated, but outside of the EU has been a different story. The same pattern is being observed in the US – people prefer to take inter-state trips and are wary of leaving the country.

Coronavirus outbreak, empty check-in desks at the airport terminal due to pandemic of coronavirus and airlines suspended flights. (Photo by Kseniya Ovchinnikova via Getty Images)

Now, the war in Ukraine looks set to extend this trend further. People generally shy away from international travel during periods of insecurity, and this is the most intense period of insecurity for Europeans since the Second World War. Flights between Europe and Asia will have to be diverted around Russian airspace, adding extra time and cost. Combined with the intense increase in jet fuel prices, we seem to be returning to an era where international flights are unaffordable for most people – at least for the next few years.

Long-haul flights do far more climate damage than short-haul, both because they are longer and because the planes fly higher. Although they make up just 6% of the flights leaving European airports, long-haul flights departing Europe produce more than half of the continent’s aviation emissions, according to European air traffic management organisation Eurocontrol.

Aviation emissions drop

After increasing rapidly over the past two decades, global CO2 emissions from aviation fell by one-third in 2020 compared with the previous year, according to the International Energy Agency. Emissions were just over 600 million tonnes in 2020 – the lowest level since 1997. The expectation was that this is a temporary phenomenon and growth will return to previous levels quickly. It is now clear that will not be the case. Aviation emissions continued to fall in 2021 even as the short-haul market in, for example, the US or EU, started to recover. The reason? Long-haul flights were not recovering – and still aren’t.

“One of the biggest contributors to reduced oil demand during the pandemic has been reduced flying,” says Andrew Murphy, aviation manager for NGO Transport & Environment (T&E) in Brussels. “People are taking to their cars in a pretty standard way, but they are not doing long-haul travel.” As airlines were receiving bailouts in 2020, Murphy and other campaigners were frustrated that virtually the only green condition placed on airlines was the scrapping of short-haul domestic flights in France and Austria.

It now seems the market is delivering an aviation emissions reduction where policymakers failed. The reason is not only that people are wary of booking far-away vacations – it is also the disappearance of business travel.

“During Covid, we have found creative ways to do business meetings without face-to-face travel – Zoom is the most high profile, but we have also seen robotics and drones do on-site inspections,” says Murphy. “Both the [new] Covid variants in 2021 and now the Ukraine conflict in 2022 have highlighted the risks of relying on face-to-face long-haul travel. You don’t know what the next crisis is going to be.”

In Match 2022, T&E is planning to launch a corporate travel campaign around reducing long-haul aviation. “A lot of companies are adopting pledges for the future, such as a 15% reduction in business travel," says Murphy. "It isn’t enough, but that is still a pretty significant impact on the sector because a majority of emissions are from long haul.”

Fewer airplanes

The changing demand has had an effect throughout the aviation supply chain. Long-haul routes have been cut, so aircraft-makers are ditching plans to make more large two-aisle planes in favour of smaller one-aisle planes. Many wide-body planes are sitting idle, with more than 1,400 of them in storage in aircraft hangers at the start of December 2021, according to the aviation consultancy Cirium. That is almost 30% of wide-body aircraft, down from 3,586 at the peak of the pandemic but still very different from the situation for smaller planes, where most have now been taken out of storage.

When will it be time to put these wide-body jets to use again? Anyone who made predictions last month has had those plans upended by the Ukraine war. “The industry itself […] was already admitting it would be the middle of this decade before travel would bounce back,” says Murphy. “If that is what they are saying in public, I think the reality is probably later.

“It is a very exposed sector and its necessity has been shown to not be as high as the sector thought,” he adds.

Nevertheless, many aircraft orders were placed years ago and still need to be delivered, and airlines are still flying some long-distance routes – even if they are empty – to hold onto their airport slots. More than 100,000 of these ghost flights will have been made by the end of this winter in Europe alone, according to environmental campaign group Greenpeace, equivalent to the yearly emissions of more than 1.4 million cars. They want the EU to change the laws around holding onto airport slots, something the European Commission has tried to do for years without success.

“It would be irresponsible of the EU to not take the low-hanging fruit of ending ghost flights,” says Greenpeace spokesman Herwig Schuster.

Can it be maintained?

There is still more supply of than demand for long-haul flights. Wide-body planes are still being delivered to airlines and those airlines still want to hold onto their airport slots. “Whilst deliveries of new generation aircraft continue, the pandemic has hampered the pace at which they can enter service,” comments aviation advisory and analytics company IBA.

“As the recovery begins to ramp up through 2022 and beyond, IBA expects operators will continue to reactivate their dormant fleets. This is likely to result in the global [aviation] emissions figure creeping up slightly.”

The question is whether regulators, and the industry, can preserve the gains made in reducing aviation emissions during the pandemic. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), an independent non-profit, it is unrealistic to expect the pandemic to impact long-term growth in passenger numbers. However, it could reshape the trajectory of that growth, from a high-growth scenario of a 3.7% increase in passenger traffic per year from now to 2050 to a low-growth scenario of 2.4%.

“The Covid-19 pandemic reminds us that no one can predict with certainty what the air travel industry will look like in ten, 20 or 30 years,” says the ICCT’s Brandon Graver.

The EU’s efforts to control aviation emissions by including the sector in the EU Emissions Trading System were rebuffed by Washington and Beijing in 2012, and the EU climbed down to let the International Civil Aviation Organization come up with a global scheme. Those efforts have made very little progress, but at this stage they are the only possibility for regulation to reduce aviation emissions. The potential for sustainable aviation fuels to move the needle is being closely watched.

In the end, the market effects of the pandemic, compounded by the war in Ukraine, could be the deciding factor and succeed where policymakers have failed. However, it all depends on whether the changes in how people view the need for long-haul travel are here to stay or will be forgotten within a few years.

This article was originally published on our sister site Energy Monitor.

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