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Will Travel Ever Go Back to Normal?

Will Travel Ever Go Back to Normal?

With much of air travel grounded for over a year, we question whether the industry should ever return to its pre-pandemic state.

13 minute read

By Rosie Spinks
28th Apr 2021

At the beginning of 2020, I sat down in my flat in London to map out my international travel schedule for the year. There were work trips to Paris, Madrid, Puerto Rico, possibly Singapore, once or twice to New York, and a stop in California to see my family. It was a schedule that could have defined any year since becoming a journalist writing about travel in my early twenties.

Months later, all those trips had been refunded or turned into credits and my only travel plans were a stroll around the park. I realized much of my life had felt so overwhelming because I’d scarcely unpacked my carry-on for the last decade. My entire lifestyle had become unsustainable for my health and, I came to realize, for the world.

It’s not that I wasn’t aware of the high carbon cost of flying around the world. It’s just that I’d more or less built my entire life on the premise of doing just that. I assumed I’d always be able to jump on a plane in London and see my family 5,000 miles away, in California. Borders would be open, planes would take off, and the biggest inconvenience I might experience was a cancellation or delay. On some level, I sensed this period would have to end. It’s not sustainable, in any sense of the word, to fly from London to LA on a Norwegian Air flight for £495.

I just didn’t expect it all to end so soon.

My expectation of being able to travel so far and with such ease had become my norm. It was only Covid-19 that forced me to stop. It was a practice that was normalized both by the professional and socioeconomic ladder I was climbing, as well as a travel industry that had experienced an explosion of growth in the last decade or two. After the pandemic ends, travel is not likely to go back to its 2019 norm — and that’s a good thing.

Instagram fueled the travel lifestyle

Just over a year ago, seamless and uninterrupted travel was a pillar of the globalized world, and demand for it wasn’t going anywhere but up. As a business reporter — first for Quartz and then for the travel industry-focused publication Skift — even my critical coverage of the industry felt underpinned by a belief that it would be a long time before this upward trajectory was challenged.

The falling cost and rising accessibility of travel in the last two decades had a lot to do with that.

Photo by Owen Tozer for Hothouse

Online travel agencies made booking travel more accessible to more people, and Airbnb made more frequent and/or longer trips more affordable. Hyper fuel-efficient, low-cost airlines first enabled short-haul weekend breaks, and then made international travel feasible for far more people. As all this happened, some governments used tourism as a development strategy, rolling out splashy advertising campaigns aligned with Hollywood movies or courting foreign investment which transformed city real estate into short-term rentals for visitors rather than residents.

Culturally, the 2010s penchant for “gathering experiences over things” — a credo associated with the early sharing economy and aided and abetted by Instagram geotags and hashtags — gave us the idea that travel was the ultimate luxury good. All of a sudden, everyone had a bucket list, and if you didn’t, you probably just didn’t earn enough money or have the right career path yet. Furthermore, business travel and its accompanying hustle, the credit card points industry, meant a member of a certain professional class could flit around the world, from Priority Pass Lounge to Uber to airspace Airbnb — all comprising an “elite global habitat” facilitated by points, miles, and excessive business travel.

By 2019, this was all so normalized that in some circles, traveling multiple times a month didn’t make you seem like you were running from your life, but rather, living a highly successful one. The busier you are, the less you are home, the more high-carbon goods and services you consume to sustain a frantic, high-flying schedule. You don’t plug into the community in any sustained way, because you’re usually too busy leaving or arriving back in it. After all, if you could be anywhere on earth by tomorrow afternoon, why on earth wouldn’t you?

Six industries in one

There are already signs that at least some of this will be a relic of our pre-pandemic way of life. Businesses have realized that traveling across the world for every meeting was, in fact, wildly unnecessary. Bill Gates boldly predicted in December that 50% of business travel will disappear post-Covid, and large consultancies including Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers have indicated less business travel in the future. The business models of some low-cost, long-haul carriers are faltering, with the market pioneer, Norwegian Air, terminating its transatlantic flight operation.

“The busier you are, the less you are home, the more high-carbon goods and services you consume to sustain a frantic, high-flying schedule … After all, if you could be anywhere on earth by tomorrow afternoon, why on earth wouldn’t you?”

There is also growing tension between the way travel had been marketed by tourism boards and the reality on the ground. Some over-touristed spots like Venice have caught their breath, and they may not be so keen to welcome back the volume-led model that wrought so much destruction. But even before Covid, the gap was growing. An Australian tourism ad had to be pulled from circulation in the UK because it was being aired as unprecedented wildfires destroyed the destination it was marketing. As disasters and weather events of this type start to happen more often than not, tourism marketing and lifestyle travel journalism will increasingly face some version of this question: How do you tell people to hop on a plane to visit, say, the Maldives, when getting on a plane to the Maldives contributes to its demise?

It’s clear that much needs to change, but I wouldn’t look to the travel industry for a rapid course correction. What we call the travel industry is really six or more industries in one — hotels, airlines, destinations/tourism marketing, travel tech, and software, events, supporting service industries etc.  — which means it’s hard to find clear leadership when it comes to facing the industry’s problems. For sheer size, few industries rival travel and tourism: the pre-Covid industry comprised roughly 10.3% of global GDP and one in 10 jobs worldwide. All that economic promise and distributed responsibility means few industry leaders are willing to state the obvious: If we want less carbon emissions today, people just need to fly less.

This is especially true given how many decades away carbon-free flying remains, even by the industry’s own admission, if it is achieved at all. Innovation is happening: electric planes, low carbon synthetic and biofuels, and hydrogen-powered flight are either in test flights or the engineering labs. But the snail’s pace of aerospace engineering, as well as the dizzying complexity of accompanying supply chains, infrastructure, and regulation, means it will likely be decades before carbon-free technology can power the kinds of long-haul routes that carry hundreds of passengers and cargo. The possibility for short-haul electric and/or hybrid flights is perhaps not as far off. But given the slim profit margins of the airline industry, the financial feasibility of developing and implementing these technologies also relies in part on the continued growth of the industry — which means more emissions.

The travel industry’s pledges to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 — with no real plan to get there other than the use of problematic carbon offsets — feel like an attempt to acknowledge the problem without taking the economically painful but necessary steps to fix it. (One notable exception recently was United Airlines, which parted from competitors saying offsets were not sufficient to meet its emissions-cutting goals, and it will look to a technology known as direct air capture.)

Even if demand does bounce back to pre-Covid levels by the middle of the decade, there will be a host of other, perhaps even more intractable problems for the industry to contend with: extreme weather and natural disasters becoming commonplace, the estimated 1.2 billion climate refugees set to be displaced by 2050, and the increasingly thorny ethics and practicalities of privileged consumers escaping to imperiled exotic locations in an unstable and unpredictable world.

“How do you tell people to hop on a plane to visit, say, the Maldives, when getting on a plane to the Maldives contributes to its demise?”

Even the basic physics of flight may get in the way. In Phoenix, Arizona, aircraft have previously been unable to take off in thin, hot summer air after temperatures hit 120F. It’s a phenomenon that could become more common at airports around the world, with the heaviest planes on long-haul flights forced to wait out scorching summer days.

Flying often just isn’t normal

Ariella Granett is the co-founder of the US chapter of the Flight Free movement, a campaign that asks people to pledge to go flight free either for the remainder of the year, for leisure travel only, or for “as long as the climate needs.”

She says that forgoing flying isn’t just about individual action — something that will never reverse the climate emergency alone — but rather “creating a drumbeat” to push policy and governments to curb emissions. Part of that drumbeat, she says, is normalizing the idea that flying so much was never normal or benign, and that an obsession with doing so functions like an addiction.

“Addiction is a word we can use to describe a lot of aspects of our consumer lifestyle and just acknowledging that can help put my own desires into context,” Granett said. “You take a trip and there’s a high coming off of that, and you tell everyone about it and you get back to normal. And then you plan your next trip: I need to go again, somewhere farther, somewhere more exotic. If you step back, it’s kind of a dysfunctional space to be in. You’re coming and going but never here.”

1 in 10 jobs worldwide attributed to travel and tourism (Pre-Covid)
Photo by Owen Tozer for Hothouse

She points to a survey conducted by Cardiff University which found that half of the respondents — 84% of which were European — flew less because of an example set by someone they knew who had given up flying. In addition, three-quarters of respondents said knowing someone who had forgone flying had changed their attitudes towards flying and climate change.

In the short term, the structural changes needed in the travel industry may only come initially as a result of bottom-up shifts in consumer demand. And there are already signs that the pandemic may be hastening this: France scrapped plans to expand Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport in February, a decision which was said to be influenced by the pandemic. Falling demand for business and conference travel from consumers will mean less of the full-price premium fares that subsidize many international routes — sometimes accounting for as much as 75% of a flight’s revenue. If this leads to more accurate pricing of what it costs to fly across the world for leisure, perhaps people will think more deeply about doing it.

Flying is a pretty big deal

I am still grieving that period of my life where travel felt like a way to see the world, rather than harm it. But disruptive events like the pandemic, ones that affect us emotionally and physically, have the effect of changing our worldview. I believe we should let them.

“We have to be more clear-eyed about who gets access to [travel] in a global economy, and at what cost to others.”

Last year, I experienced for the first time the true consequences of choosing a life that was predicated on always being able to get on a plane. As Jean Hannah Edelstein wrote in the Guardian, before the pandemic, people like me with two powerful passports had the privilege of thinking that crossing borders “was about fluidity, not permanent parting.” When flights resume freely, going to see my family will be my only air travel plan for the foreseeable future. While I’m lucky that Europe’s trains and ferries mean that doesn’t preclude all foreign trips in the future, I’ve accepted that my travel itinerary for the next decade will look starkly different than the last.

I still believe the desire to travel and explore is a beautiful manifestation of human curiosity — and one that’s probably not going anywhere. But we have to be more clear-eyed about who gets access to it in a global economy, and at what cost to others. Will we continue getting on planes? Sure. But as consumers who give a damn, we can begin to do so with the same discernment that we are applying to other areas of our lives, like food and clothing. If going to a given location is your dream trip, perhaps that means you go for longer and travel slower once you get there, don’t take other trips for a while before and after, forgo work travel in favor of Zoom, and don’t come home and immediately begin gearing up for the next trip.

Because above all, flying less isn’t just something we should do, it’s something I now believe we are going to have to do. The world that the travel industry of the past two decades promised us — one where the world felt small, and getting to the other side was seamless  — is fundamentally at odds with the one we should be cultivating if we want to stabilize the climate. That one includes finding ways to be more resilient, locally dependent, and less expectant of and reliant on high-carbon goods and services. It’s one where we spend more time investing in the place where we live, rather than escaping it. In that more grounded context, getting on an airplane should start to feel like what it always was: a pretty big deal.

Republished with permission from Hothouse, a climate action newsletter providing a weekly ten-minute read on how to live a lower-carbon life.