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March 28, 2020

Systemic issues

Opinion

March 28, 2020

In recent weeks, the coronavirus pandemic’s devastating effect on the airline and tourist industries has been graphically evident. Airlines cutting flights by 50 percent or more while hurtling towards bankruptcy; passengers in chaotic airport scenes as they try to get home before travel bans; Venice, Paris, Rome – for once – resembling ghost towns; leviathan cruise ships forlorn and empty, like Wagner’s Flying Dutchman.

This might not be a temporary bump in the road for these industries, but a precursor to their long-term viability if they do not radically change their business models. Observers have for many years questioned the environmental sustainability of both industries. What’s more, airline travel has become so onerous for passengers that a consumer rebellion could be brewing even without fears of infectious disease.

Tourism has long been cursed with an inherent paradox that recent events have thrown into sharp perspective. Since about 1980, airline travel has gradually ceased to be an adventure (in the positive sense), and come to resemble the Stations of the Cross. From nonexistent cabin service, to checked bag fees (causing the need to shoehorn everything into the overhead, forcing delays both entering and exiting the plane), to intricately tiered fees imposing a rigid class system (like the accommodations on the Titanic), to shrinking, jammed-in seats making the airliner resemble a winged sardine can, the lot of the traveler is not a happy one.

And all of that is simply what happens on the plane. Since 9/11, airports have come to resemble mini-Soviet Unions, with every passenger under quasi-military discipline (including the requirement to “hurry up and wait,” familiar to every GI). There are subtle indignities like removing belt and shoes, and what has been described as “security theater” (it is in practical terms all-but impossible to take inert liquids into an aircraft restroom and mix them into an explosive, given the need for a pressure vessel and freezing temperatures, but maybe the vast wastage of water bottles is economic stimulus for the concessionaires’ $2 water on the other side of the checkpoint).

Is all this flying really necessary? Perhaps the current virus outbreak will teach businesses sending their employees hither and yon that all the fancy teleconferencing gear they’ve bought is actually usable. And possibly the reason business travel has heretofore not been perceived as a burden is because it can be expensed. That may change as the health, as well as environmental, costs of plane travel become more pressing.

Excerpted from: 'Are Mass Plane Travel and Mass TourismUnsustainable?'

Commondreams.org