Grounded! What did a year without flying do to the world?

·22 min read

On 14 March 2020, I left my home in the Orkney Islands to drive to Edinburgh international airport. I was due to travel to Germany for a research trip. Full of nervous anticipation, and making frantic last-minute preparations, I hadn’t paid as much attention to the coronavirus crisis as I might have, but events were developing so quickly across Europe, it was dawning on me that international travel might not be an option for much longer.

By 5am, as I boarded the ferry, the radio bulletins seemed apocalyptic. On board, passengers sat separately, in their own private islands of paranoia. I wore a mask over my nose and mouth, and cleaned my armrests with a baby wipe soaked in Dettol. In the toilets, the ship pitching beneath my feet, I scrubbed my hands for 60 seconds and examined my own reflection. Grey, I thought. Anxious.

Four hours later, I stopped in at my parents’ place near Inverness, where I ate some lunch and checked emails on my phone. I had a lot of them. “Don’t come,” one of my German contacts said, simply. Another had cancelled our meeting due to childcare problems; all schools had suddenly closed. A hotel regretfully informed me that it would not be able to honour my booking. My flight, however, was still scheduled to depart on time.

Far above, thousands of planes were still pinballing around Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas. They crowded the airspace over London and Amsterdam and Paris, converging from all directions before spiralling down. They were launching over oceans with a cannonball momentum; weaving cleanly between each other in a mannered, balletic dance.

Normally, planes are in constant motion, massing with the daylight but never truly ceasing, moving in predictable patterns like currents over the Earth – the invisible infrastructure of the world. Regular routes – these passageways and corridors and elevated motorways through the sky – have grown more crowded and important as air travel has increased in popularity over recent decades, more tightly stitched into the fabric of our lives and the global economy.

Back in 2004, 2 billion passengers boarded flights over the course of a year. By 2019 that figure had more than doubled, to 4.5 billion. On an average day, 100,000 flights or more might take off; on 25 July 2019 – the busiest recorded day in aviation – there were 230,000.

In 2020, passenger numbers were expected to rise yet again – until the Covid-19 pandemic brought the aviation industry to its knees. Suddenly, all around the world, people were watching the news, clutching their tickets, checking for updates and wondering what to do.

Very soon, flights would be grounded on a scale never before seen. A year without flying – for many of us – forced major changes in the way we ran our business, family life, leisure time, and how we looked at the world.

***

As I uncertainly considered my flight to Germany, 9,100 miles away, in Perth, Australia, Daria Kuznetsova and Andrew Rodger were making their own calculations. For an international couple, “home” is a complicated proposition. They’d been in Australia for nearly a month, introducing baby Alexander to Andrew’s family, and they had tickets booked to travel back to the UK, where they had both lived since they were students.

Their tickets were valid, but something was holding them back. The Australian prime minister had just called on his countryfolk everywhere to come home. For Andrew, an Australian citizen, it felt difficult to disobey. And wouldn’t they, by returning to Europe, be flying into the eye of the storm? What about Daria’s family – her parents in Washington DC, her sister in Turkey, her brother in Moscow? What would they do? Who did they have?

Thailand - May 29, 2020: An empty gate seats in departure terminal following the coronavirus outbreak, at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok
‘After the panic, an eerie silence’: Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok on 29 May 2020. Photograph: Eez/Shutterstock

They debated for a few days. In Australia they felt safe. But when they thought about their cosy London flat, the mural on the living room wall, their baby’s cot, their books, they knew that was home. They decided to go.

The airport was almost deserted, and felt unnerving. But the plane itself was packed. There wasn’t a spare seat; they had unwittingly booked themselves, months before, on to what would be one of the last flights out of Australia. The atmosphere was strained, Daria remembers. “There was a feeling that we had no idea what we were flying into. And it could be really bad.”

It was a long flight: about 17 hours, direct. In the darkened cabin, Daria held Alexander over her shoulder and paced the aisles, jogging him to sleep. As she walked, she moved in and out of earshot of other passengers’ conversations. There were raised voices, determined plan-making, black humour. A few were genuinely panicked.

Daria wasn’t frightened, not exactly, but it was certainly unsettling. She didn’t know at the time that it would be the last flight she would take for many months, that she would miss her sister’s wedding, would need to counsel her father through a cancer diagnosis over Zoom. She didn’t think to wonder how long it would be until they saw their families again.

***

The final weeks of March 2020 saw a last mad scramble for flights before the departure boards went dark. For those working in the aviation industry, it was all hands on deck, as 1.3 million British nationals returned to the UK via commercial air routes. Those who didn’t, or couldn’t, or hadn’t appreciated the urgency, soon found themselves fighting over the remaining seats.

Timetables were torn up as governments chartered planes to repatriate stranded citizens. According to the Foreign Office, 38,000 Britons were flown back on 186 flights, from 57 different countries and territories, a crisis response with “no postwar precedent in terms of scale, complexity and duration”. The Ministry of Defence was drafted in to help hundreds more in particularly far-flung locations, repatriating 90 scientists, support staff and construction workers from the British Antarctic Survey, among others.

Pilots would get our roster as usual – all the flights we were expected to do – and steadily each one would be cancelled

But after the panic, an eerie silence. Airports were slowing to a near halt. Most airlines cut capacity by 80 or 90%, parking their jets on off-ramps, taxiways, even runways. Satellite images from around the world showed their cruciform shapes bristling from every corner, or arranged in neat, herringbone designs, wingtip to wingtip, nose to tail. Others were offloaded into hibernation in remote desert “boneyards”, their engines filled with a preservative oil and bags of desiccant distributed through the empty cabins to guard against rust and mould. At one point, two-thirds of all the world’s planes were grounded.

One British Airways pilot I spoke to – let’s call him John – suddenly found his schedule was bare. “Every month, we would get our roster as normal – all the flights we were expected to do – and steadily, as the month went on, every single one would be cancelled.” From 28 March onwards, he had 100 days without any flights.

By the start of May, more than 80 countries had suspended flights in and out. Increasingly, there was nowhere left to fly. Pilots’ pay is tightly coupled to their workload; without payments for flight time and stopovers, John’s income was tumbling. Then he and his colleagues accepted a cut to basic pay, as part of efforts to stem job losses – though he had been at the company long enough to escape the axe himself, under BA’s last-in, first-out policy.

Others in the industry were less fortunate. Some airlines, already under financial stress, buckled almost immediately in the chaos. Flybe collapsed overnight in early March after a Covid-related fall in bookings; Italian national airline Alitalia ceased operations in October. Overall, passenger numbers on international flights fell by 75.6% in 2020, compared with the previous 12 months, making it the worst year on record for the aviation industry.

Those carriers that did survive had to think outside the box. Some retired older, trouble-ridden aircraft early, rather than fork out for their storage. Some, such as Icelandair, converted passenger jets into cargo planes by stripping out seats; Emirates chief Tim Clark said it had converted into “a mini UPS” to get by. Finnair left business class seats in place, with only a thin curtain separating them from where packages were piled high in place of the economy section.

Many airlines slashed staff – across Europe, about 18,000 pilots’ jobs are thought to have been lost or are under threat, along with many tens of thousands of ground staff, cabin crew and airport workers. You can find those pilots online, posting wistful footage from past flights. One former Flybe pilot, posting to Twitter under the handle @pilot_ems, has pinned a video of her final landing as a sort of calling card for future employers (“a manually flown steep approach on a raw data ILS … I’m available immediately”). In the meantime, she sells flight-themed T-shirts and calendars online.

It has been a major setback for new pilots, who have racked up tens of thousands of pounds of debt while training. Without regular flight or simulator time, these expensive credentials lapse within months. Regaining a “type rating” – which qualifies you to fly a particular aircraft, a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320, say – might cost an out-of-work pilot £30,000 or more.

Meanwhile, John thanked his lucky stars for being at the right company for the right amount of time, and for flying the right kind of aircraft. He refreshed his roster and waited. Every few weeks he returned to the simulator to fly virtual flights over virtual worlds, as he waited for the real world to change.

***

Frankie Ward knows all about virtual worlds. The esports host presents arena events where gaming championships unfold live in front of 10-12,000 fans. She estimates that in 2019 she spent seven cumulative months away from home, “ping-ponging around the world”, never staying anywhere longer than a week. Berlin! Rio! Shanghai! Miami! Sydney! Her career was taking off, and travel was part of the package.

Her line of work involves long hours – sometimes 16-hour days, on stage and in front of the camera. It’s a high-adrenaline, emotional experience, she tells me. “At the end of it all, you travel home, and you can’t really talk for a couple of days. It’s like being hit by a truck.” She was hosting the Intel Extreme Masters event in Katowice, Poland, when the bottom fell out – the 2020 final was played on 1 March in an empty 11,500-seat arena, after Polish authorities pulled its mass-event licence. (More than a million tuned in online.) After that, overnight, her work diary went blank.

Though the esports industry should have been well placed to adapt to an online world, there were difficulties. Normally, in-person tournaments take place using a single local server. Domestic internet connections aren’t nearly as fast or as stable; at the top levels, a fraction of a second delay might be the deciding factor in the fight for a seven-figure prize pot. It is also, it turns out, much easier to cheat when all the players are working from home.

But with tech-friendly organisers and an existing culture of watching gameplay in real time, thanks to the streaming platform Twitch, it took only a few months to get the show back on the road. Soon, international championships had returned, audiences boosted by an influx of traditional sports fans looking for a new fix. Frankie’s work schedule filled up again, but her world closed in around her – she went from travelling to five continents in a month to long days filming alone in a room in her house. She became proficient with green screens – nodding encouragingly into empty space, watching herself superimposed on to faraway rooms, with faraway people.

Now the hotel rooms and business-class lounge have been replaced by video calls from 8am till 8pm, work’s a lot less fun

She soon realised that it’s one thing to shrug off jet lag while flooded with adrenaline on a stage, and quite another to be working long days, in other timezones, from your spare room. She stayed awake until 5 or 6am, adapting her body clock to American or Asian schedules. It was hard. She missed sunlight. She missed her partner. “I’d made up a bed in a different room, because I didn’t want to wake him up.” In the end, she gave up the overnight events. On the internet, many things can be truly global. But, in the end, your body – your life – cannot.

Finance is another sector that traditionally requires its workers to undertake a lot of international travel. I spoke to one senior executive at an investment company – a Briton, based in New York – who said that in her globetrotting line of work, she would travel long haul a minimum of twice a month, and often twice a week or more. Not long before the global shutdown, she travelled to Mexico City, São Paulo, San Francisco, Toronto and New York in the space of eight days.

“One good thing was that I was travelling a lot to Europe, so I could tag on trips home to London,” she says. “I felt like I was having it all: being able to live in a different country but go home frequently, and not at my own expense.” Now, living abroad feels different. She can no longer drop in on her old life. She misses her parents, her sister, her friends.

Work, too, is more difficult and less enjoyable. “For the first year of Covid, I was mainly seeing through deals that had started pre-Covid. So I had done a lot of the relationship building, and we could go seamlessly into the virtual version. Where it gets really tough is when you’re starting something new. It’s almost impossible to build a good relationship on a call. And because you don’t have that trust and familiarity, you’re probably more cautious and more indecisive than you would be in person.” Cultural factors play a role here, too: Brazilians, for example, like to do everything face to face. When we speak, she has just come off a four-hour conference call to Rio, for a deal in which the language and cultural barriers were exacerbated by being unable to interact with the other parties in person.

Now that the hotel rooms, the starlit nights in São Paulo and the business-class lounge have been replaced by back-to-back video calls from 8am until 8pm, it’s a lot less fun. And it’s harder to find a few undisturbed hours for thinking, reading, strategising. It’s the same job, she says, but it doesn’t feel the same.

***

For scientists conducting international research, the grounding of flights caused major problems. Crucial fieldwork in the world’s most remote places had to be indefinitely postponed, including long-running climatological studies that will suffer from an unprecedented year-long gap in the data at a point when the real-time study of changes to permafrost, ice sheets and tropical forests has never been more crucial.

On one high-profile polar expedition, the $155m Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (Mosaic), about 90 scientists, technicians and crew members were stranded on board an icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean for two months, after Norwegian travel restrictions halted their planned resupply flights. In the end, they had to suspend data gathering for several weeks to sail south to meet ships in ice-free international waters.

Restrictions to nonessential air travel also forced a year-long hiatus at the EastGRIP project in Greenland, an international facility where ice-core drilling offers vital insight into the Earth’s climatological history. Researchers there are looking for answers to increasingly urgent questions, as the Greenland ice sheet shrinks by an estimated 270bn tonnes a year.

Planes themselves are also valuable sources of data: commercial airliners are major contributors of meteorological observations – constantly feeding temperature, humidity, pressure and wind speed information to the World Meteorological Organisation as they cruise. Normally, planes from 43 different airlines provide about 800,000 observations a day – but this stream sputtered and nearly ran dry. Lufthansa’s contributions fell from 14,000 a month to just over 2,000; easyJet, which normally provides 16,000, sent none. (The UK was buffered from the worst of the impact, thanks to the Met Office’s network of automated weather stations.)

For some, however, the shutdown in air transport has offered an opportunity for study. With populations in lockdown, transport restricted and industrial activity slowed, it has been a chance for climatologists and atmospheric scientists to check the accuracy of their models; they have been able to measure the impact of the unprecedented sudden change in carbon emissions, and in aerosols produced by the burning of fossil fuels, and see if it lines up with the effects they might have predicted. As one researcher said: “I don’t think we could have designed a better experiment for our atmosphere.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, researchers found that lockdown had a slight warming effect in spring 2020: as air pollution dropped, so did the aerosols – particles in the atmosphere that reflect sunlight away from the planet. The impact was temporary – and tiny, an estimated 0.03C. It was, however, larger than the impact of lockdown-related drops in CO2 emissions, underlining how extraordinarily complex the task of climatological modelling is.

British Airways aircraft parked at Bournemouth airport on 27 March 2020
British Airways aircraft parked at Bournemouth airport on 27 March 2020. Photograph: National Police Air Service/PA

Of course, when it comes to air travel and our carbon footprints, climatologists are as hopelessly conflicted as any of us. Indeed, one 2020 study found that climate scientists – especially professors – tended to fly more often than other researchers, mainly due to remote fieldwork and the number of overseas conferences discussing international responses to the climate crisis. One study calculated that a single gathering of the American Geophysical Union, attended by 28,000 scientists, clocked up 177m air miles. This averages at three tonnes of CO2 a scientist, about the weekly emissions of the city of Edinburgh. Recent estimates suggest the Cop26 summit in Glasgow was responsible for the release of about 102,500 tons of CO2, roughly equal to the annual emissions of more than 8,000 UK residents – with international flights thought to contribute 60% of the total.

Time and again, people told me that the global grounding of flights had challenged their industry to rethink how their work might continue to function without expensive, time-consuming, carbon-emitting air travel. One humanitarian worker – separated from his wife and infant children for six months due to a combination of flight cancellations, border closures and visa problems – says air travel restrictions upended the normal power structure of the development sector, forcing organisations to give more agency to nationals of the country receiving the aid. The “constant turnover” of international staff slowed, too, allowing for stronger relationships and greater consistency.

With jets roaring back into action, the hushed days of lockdowns feel like a distant dream for those under flight paths

In corporate sectors, greater oversight of work-related travel has been introduced. Staff are asked to consider whether it’s completely necessary, marking a culture change in industries in which jumping on a plane used to be second nature. This could have a serious environmental impact, given that frequent-flying “super emitters” representing just 1% of the world’s population are responsible for half of aviation’s carbon footprint.

Before Covid, demand for air travel had been increasing by just short of 6% a year since 2010; studies estimated that by 2050, aviation would account for about a quarter of all global carbon emissions. But since the pandemic, demand has been deeply affected, resulting in a 40% fall in related CO2 emissions, which are not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2025.

Overall, Covid has thrown the challenge we face into sharp relief: in 2020, as travel bans and stay-at-home orders flickered in and out, during industrial slowdowns and the effective closure of business districts, global carbon emissions fell by an estimated 5.8%. This represents the largest decline since the second world war, but nevertheless falls short of the 7.6% cut believed necessary to prevent the planet from warming more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

And already we are returning to our carbon-guzzling ways. With jets roaring back into action, the hushed days of lockdowns feel like a distant dream for those living under busy flight paths. Harriet Grace, a careers coach and creative writing tutor, lives directly under Heathrow flight path 27R. It’s a lovely, leafy area, with Kew Gardens an easy stroll away, the Thames to the north, Richmond Park, with its herds of wild deer, just to the south. But the planes, she says, “are a blight”. They start flying over her house at three or four in the morning. It’s like living directly below a motorway – one that gets busier and busier as the summer heats up, just as you want to spend time outside.

She remembers those early days of lockdown with a perverse fondness. At Heathrow, which normally sees about 600 landings a day, incoming flights fell to 60 or fewer. Though it was a frightening period – the struggle over food deliveries, not knowing whether to go out – she still recalls it as a sunlit time. No planes overhead. The roar of the South Circular road, too, had been muffled. It was, she says, “extraordinary, ethereal”. The sky emptied completely. And more than that: they knew it wasn’t going to start up again in just a moment’s time. They could, in other words, fully relax, for what felt like the first time in years.

Outside – in the world, on the television, on the radio – all hell was breaking loose. But in the garden she found an uncharacteristic peace. She breathed in. Listened. She heard the birdsong, the wind through the trees.

***

Recently, I took my first flight south since the pandemic. Lifting off from the archipelago where I live, I watched the sunlight glimmer off the sea with a pewter sheen. The frilled edges of the coastline spooled by below. Seeing all this, a whole country spread out below me, seemed to add a dimension to the way I understood the land and my place in it. As my gaze zoomed out, I felt my comprehension expand, too – my sense of being part, not only of the town I live in, but the country as a whole, even the world. A world that, for the first time in a long time, seemed accessible and therefore more real.

Later, when we made our descent, I saw all London set out below me. The arch of Wembley and the cross-hatched streets, the meandering river. The plane spiralled down east over the city. I saw the nub of the Albert Hall, the sparkling cut-sapphire of a pond. There were train tracks striating the ground, long and thin like musculature, and the ribbing of the streets. Something fired inside me that I hadn’t felt in some time. I realised how my world had shrunk these past few months, how my identity had shifted.

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At the start of the first lockdown, many of us had that haunting sense that somehow we deserved all this. That we had been riding for a fall. That we had been too busy, too globe-trotting, too carefree, for too long. It’s hard to remember that sense of moral reckoning, now that many of us have spent so much time craving international travel, many for far more crucial and heartrending reasons than my own.

The plane made what felt like a handbrake turn and swooped over Hammersmith Bridge, the whole city laid out just for me, and I thought: what a privilege it is to see the world from this perspective. I remembered John, the way he said he’d felt the first time he’d returned to the cockpit after so long: his job, he said, was really a treat. He’d missed it.

Many of us, forced to make changes during the shutdown in global travel, adapted our lives. Research has shown that people felt they had rediscovered the value of family, of their local area, even the joys of sharing life at a distance, through virtual means. There have been silver linings to committing to being in one place. Frankie, the esports host, found time to renovate her house with her new husband, and is pregnant with their first child. She won’t be flying much for a while. The New York investment executive moved in with her partner; they bought a house together upstate. She’s not sure how her old globe-trotting habits could fit in with this new settled way of being. For many, being forcibly grounded has brought a sense of groundedness, too.

The plane banks and turns into a low haze. Below me, I picture baby Alexander – now a toddler, taking his first steps. Harriet in her garden, hearing the roar of the engine. And a hundred thousand other people outside in the streets, who might look up at any moment and see my descent.

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