What’s next for European travel? Future tech — or back to the past
Slow, clean and rare or fast and cheap — the clashing visions for how we'll travel in 2050.
This article is part of the special report The World in 2050.
Ever since American writer Nellie Bly made it round the world in 72 days in 1889, the travel industry has focused on ever-faster speeds and ever-lower prices.
The trouble is that moving vast numbers of people for as little money as possible was only possible in a world where greenhouse gas emissions weren’t a thing.
“We solve sustainability or we die,” said Andrew Charlton, managing director of Aviation Advocacy, a consultancy. “If we do not do that, flying goes back to 1930s — a plaything for the very rich and very important.”
If the EU manages to become climate neutral in 2050, the old model of cheap, cheerful travel may have to be junked. It could be replaced by something like a return to the pre-Nellie Bly days of slow, much more expensive, but much cleaner forms of travel.
IATA foresees that by mid-century, some 9 billion people will be flying every year, compared with 4.3 billion in 2018. But aviation currently generates about 3 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions; a percentage share that is likely to skyrocket by 2050 as other parts of the economy decarbonize.
EU regulations requiring dramatic cuts in carbon will certainly play a role in putting the industry under pressure, but so could newfound consumer concern.
Passengers are “going to be asking a lot more questions about aviation’s environmental impact,” said Michael Gill, who leads environment issues at the International Air Transport Association, the global industry lobby. “More passengers will take that into consideration before they decide to fly.”
Think calorie counts, vegetarianism and “fair trade” certificates. For new generations of travelers, a €50 weekend jaunt to Mallorca will not be as consequence-free as it is today. By 2050, passengers will be inevitably more aware of the environmental effect of their travel, especially since the impact of climate change will be more visceral and likely harsher.
That leaves a couple of options — a dramatic change in technology to allow for continued mass travel, or else a radical rethink of travel and tourism.
Social movements like flygskam — the guilt felt over the environmental impacts of flying — and the return of night trains to Europe are already compelling transport companies to notice and respond. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted an even sharper reevaluation of work and travel habits.
The coronavirus led to an almost complete halt in flying. Tourism withered. Cruise ships have become disease incubators instead of the stuff of pensioners’ dreams. Airlines have been left trying to figure out how to entice passengers back while keeping them safe.
For cities like Tallinn, Prague and Kraków, the end of low-cost flights crammed with cheap boozers is making them wonder if post-pandemic tourism should be very different. There are calls in Italy for Venice — a city that lost most of its citizens and is now largely the preserve of tourists — to be resettled with normal Italians.
Growing tourism has also decreased the quality of those journeys. Packed planes flying to overrun tourist spots in Barcelona and Santorini or even a crowded Mount Everest are the stuff of nightmares.
“The now mature-aged Gen-Z and millennials’ focus on experience will see a raft of longer, more complex holidays,” said Charlton. “Airlines will have to think about being a ‘stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap’ airline or an experience airline.”
On the professional front, teleworking got a sharp boost as employees were told to work from home during the pandemic. Many companies are now rethinking the need for corporate travel. While a return to flying is likely as countries begin to ease travel restrictions, how much of that travel is “essential” is now in question.
“Your job is intimately connected to how you travel,” said Andrew Murphy, aviation manager at Transport & Environment, an advocacy group campaigning for cleaner forms of transportation. “Either you travel for work, or you travel to escape from work. Those are the two reasons you get on a plane. If your working life is different, your travel is going to fundamentally change.”
More of the same, but better
None of that is good for the industry, which is hoping air travel will continue to grow at the steep pace seen for the last two decades. In the view of many in the industry, the system only requires technological tweaks to keep that growth sustainable.
“The problem isn’t flying, the problem is CO2” is a familiar industry mantra — it’s just the pesky emissions that need addressing, not the industry itself.
“The only way for aviation to become climate neutral is for planes to stop burning kerosene,” said Jo Dardenne, another aviation manager at T&E.
The European Commission is currently drafting a strategy to promote sustainable alternatives to jet fuel, and both green groups and industry alike are hoping for swift progress.
Limited amounts of jet fuel made from used cooking oil, animal fat, waste and residue are already being produced. Experts envision lab-made fuels, electric power and hydrogen.
“Alternative fuels is where we’ve seen the fastest progress in the shortest period of time,” Gill said. While these currently make up less than 0.1 percent of the fuel aircraft burn, Gill said the share could increase to 2 percent by 2025 — at which point there will be a business case for suppliers to produce more of it.
This month the French government gave €15 billion to its aerospace industry, with one of the conditions being the acceleration of research into building a plane that runs on hydrogen by 2035. Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said: “We are absolutely convinced that it is feasible.”
“I think it’s entirely possible you step onto a plane that looks the same, but everything around the plane — how it’s fueled, why you’re getting on the plane, how frequently you’re getting on the plane, what you’re getting on the plane to do, all that could change,” said Murphy.
For the decarbonization of the airline industry to be feasible, however, it will have to happen fast.
“The pace of development and the pace and breadth of dispersing those technologies into the global fleet will dictate how much they help reduce emissions,” Sean Newsum, Boeing’s director of environmental strategy, told POLITICO.
And that will cost money. Today, clean alternatives can be up to six times more expensive than kerosene, and airlines can’t afford air travel becoming six times more expensive. Ideally, airlines want “no difference in price between conventional and alternative fuels. We want to get to a situation where there is parity,” Gill said.
But that might be just the thing needed in a climate-neutral Europe.
“The ‘Ryanairization’ of air travel needs to stop,” Dardenne said. “It’s super important to make sure prices don’t go too low and flying is better priced in general.”