/ 23 May 2020

The great untethering and the airlines’ flat spin

Japan China Health Virus
Passengers are seen on the balconies of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, with around 3 600 people quarantined onboard due to fears of the new coronavirus, at the Daikaku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama port on February 12, 2020. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP)


It took a few hundred thousand years for humanity to sculpt a digital fourth dimension into its existence. It took another decade and the onset of plague for big business to submit to it.

The staff’s great untethering into the fourth dimension was seamless. There were the banking call centres splintering across thousands of homes and a few days later, plague-proofed corporates were back on line to paint office parks with absurdity’s gloss.

Where the unimaginative hide behind the status quo, plague becomes the mother of invention for what is possible and was never a considered boardroom item.

Pandemic has always shaped the rhythm of society’s “new normals”. Europe’s medieval plague reprisals during the summer months encouraged retreats to country homes from the towns and cities and were the precedent for the summer vacation shutdown.

It’s not a stretch to consider the plague-induced, working-from-home practice the most significant event for global travel since bipedalism, or certainly since the Wright brothers’ promise of flight became climate change’s Trojan Horse.

The airline industry’s variety of ailments for its routine deadman-walking acts — from recession, wars, extreme weather events and its latest starring role as both vector and victim of plague —  is being treated with the standard government billion-dollar bailouts above the regular taxpayer subsidies.

The airlines will be reborn in thalidomide form in the next few months as customers emerge timid, short of cash and travel shy into an economic landscape stained with the faint brushstroke of extinction.

Through the prism of plague, the airlines’ claim of being “indispensable” for world travel is hollow, where real-time, online global communication makes slow journey times irrelevant.

The fourth dimension throws the 2 500 year-old Aesop’s Fables’ morality tale of the tortoise and hare race into play for global travel. Spoiler alert — the tortoise cruised it.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution rhythms handed the satellite television model its redundancy notice with its rigid scheduling unable to compete with the choice to browse for whatever, whenever and wherever.

The airline industry is confronted with a similar existential threat through wi-fi invoking the journey-is-the-destination swagger without any impediment to work obligations.

Up and until the Boeing 747 Jumbo touched down in the 1970s for the long-haul, mass transport gig, the arteries of global travel were scheduled shipping line-routes between continents.

The disconnected maritime sojourns between London and Cape Town and other shorter passages soon became out of synch with a faster-paced business environment and the tightening of the work-place shackles.

The passenger jet age compensated for the time lost from the journey’s void to the destination. The need for speed distilled the army conscript routine of “hurry-up and wait” into air travel’s essence.

Fifty years-on the airlines carbon emissions’ horseman of the apocalypse garb and Covid-19’s free air miles is fraying patience.

A few weeks before Covid-19 broke cover in Wuhan, the Swiss-based bank UBS survey forecast the rapidly growing “flygskam” —  flight shaming — movement boycotts were expected to halve future passenger airline growth. That curve is unlikely to flatten post-coronavirus.

The febrile airline network will be propped up by governments’ “Too Big To Fail” corporate partnerships. Ticket prices and excess baggage charges are expected to increase by a conservative 50%. It will be more. Check-ins and arrivals, with health monitoring added to the immigration and security ordeals, will be matching intercontinental flight durations, even before factoring in other delays. The departure lounge sneeze met with horror, silence and the odd whimper.

The gravest threat to the airline industry, however, is not the possible downsides of a “catastrophic global cyber-attack” on the immediate viability of passenger aircraft in flight: it’s offering an alternative.

The meshing of maritime travel and the digital world becomes a competitive choice to the airline’s cattle class.

Slow travel’s logic is instant arrival at a continental destination from the workplace, with the agility of Captain Kirk’s instruction: “Beam me up, Scotty”. It’s a simple equation enabled by the work-from-home philosophy that — imposed without a leash — will unburden the airlines’ arrogance that global travel is their sole remit.

A hypothetical itinerary is only possible for an intercontinental long-weekend without jet lag, leave days or the chicken or beef option, and comes with a guarantee of an uninterrupted wi-fi chain.

Monday: Log on to work. Depart by train from German capital Berlin, arrive Cherbourg, France. Depart that night on Atlantic ocean liner passage. Thursday: Arrive New York in the evening. Log off from work for the long weekend. Monday evening: Log on to work and return voyage. Repeat work regime.

Saved by petri dishes

The cruise line industry was an early Covid-19 poster-child through its desire to surpass its ambitions to match the hygiene standards of Roman orgies. The ships’ reputation, even before the coronavirus outbreak, as floating petri-dishes, generated increasing hostility from host ports.

Covid-19 is a harsh task-master for industry without purpose. The cruise ship behemoths with their Godzilla-like carbon footprints are at anchorage from Manila to Cape Town to the Caribbean and are excluded from billion-dollar bail-outs because of their off-shore tax status. India’s Gujarat beach shipping scrapyards are beckoning.

The prognosis for the cruise liner industry has easy RMS Titanic metaphors, but it would be foolish to throw the baby out with the bathwater. William Shakespeare’s advice is more salient: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat.”

Repurposing the cruise line industry as a stop-gap measure ahead of the development of a climate-friendly, plague-proofed scheduled ocean-going fleet, may help stave off the gin palaces’ more immediate beach graveyard rendezvous.

Once Covid-19’s virulence tapped into the world’s about 18 000 commercial airport network, it was primed to strike any country within 48 hours. Slow affordable travel serves as plague’s shock absorber.

The age of plague hygiene etiquettes would give cruise liners purpose, with individual cabins (rather than the airlines’ social distancing seat), regular deep cleaning and anti-virulence varnishes on every surface, among other required precautions. The casino could be stripped-out for a state-of-the-art, government-subsidised onboard clinic to monitor or contain illness or act as arks for the healthy against future pandemics.

It shifts investment from financial market citadels to stale coastal economies — and one of climate change’s frontlines — for diverse businesses to flourish in the post-coronavirus economic wasteland.

It’s a Plan B to opt out of global heating joyrides and allow for that foreign field of the “free market” to ferry those content with slow boats in the fourth dimension.

Guy Oliver is a Cape Town-based photo-journalist. He smokes assorted cigarettes