I left my home in the Orkney Islands on March 14, 2020 to drive to Edinburgh international airport. I was going to Germany for a research trip. I had made frantic last-minute preparations, but I hadn't paid much attention to the coronaviruses crisis, and it was dawning on me that international travel might not be an option for much longer.
The radio bulletin seemed apocalyptic as I boarded the ferry. Passengers sat in their own islands of paranoia. I wore a mask over my mouth and nose and cleaned my seat with a baby wipe. I scrubbed my hands and looked at my reflection in the toilets on the ship. I thought of grey. Anxious.
I ate lunch at my parents place and checked my phone while there. I had many of them. One of my German contacts told me not to come. All the schools suddenly closed because of the childcare problems that caused another to cancel our meeting. I was told that the hotel wouldn't be able to honor my booking. My flight was scheduled to leave on time.
Thousands of planes were still flying around the world. They crowded the airspace over London and Amsterdam and Paris. They were launching over the ocean with a cannonball, weaving cleanly between each other in a balletic dance.
Normally, planes are massing with the daylight but never truly stopping, moving in predictable patterns like currents over the Earth, the invisible infrastructure of the world. Air travel has increased in popularity over the last few decades, more tightly woven into the fabric of our lives and the global economy, as regular routes have grown more crowded and important.
In 2004, 2 billion passengers boarded flights. The figure doubled to 4.5 billion by the year 2019. On the busiest day in aviation in July of this year, there were 230,000 flights.
In 2020, passenger numbers were expected to rise again, but they were expected to fall after the Covid-19 epidemic. Suddenly, all around the world, people were watching the news and wondering what to do.
Soon, flights would be grounded on a scale never before seen. For many of us, a year without flying forced major changes in the way we ran our business, family life, leisure time, and how we looked at the world.
As I pondered my flight to Germany, 9,100 miles away, in Perth, Australia, Daria and Andrew made their own calculations. For an international couple, home is a complicated proposition. They had tickets booked to return to the UK after they introduced baby Alexander to Andrew's family in Australia.
They had valid tickets, but something was holding them back. The Australian prime minister had just called on his people to come home. It was difficult for Andrew, an Australian citizen. Wouldn't they be flying into the eye of the storm if they returned to Europe? What about her family, her parents in Washington DC, her sister in Turkey, her brother in Moscow? What would they do? Who did they have?
The airport in Thailand had a panic on May 29, 2020. Eez/Shutterstock
They debated for a while. They felt safe in Australia. When they thought about their home in London, they knew it was there. They decided to leave.
The airport was almost empty. The plane was full. They had booked themselves onto the last flight out of Australia months before, and there was no spare seat. The atmosphere was tense, according to Daria. We had no idea what we were flying into. It could be really bad.
It was a long flight. In the dark cabin, Alexander was held over her shoulder and paced the aisles. She moved in and out of the conversations of other passengers as she walked. There were raised voices and black humour. A few people were panicked.
It was unnerving, but not frightening. She didn't know at the time that she would miss her sister's wedding, that she would need to counsel her father through a cancer diagnosis, and that it would be the last flight she would take for many months. She didn't think about how long it would take until they saw their families again.
The last weeks of March 2020 saw a last minute scramble for flights before the departure boards went dark. 1.3 million British nationals returned to the UK via commercial air routes for those working in the aviation industry. The people who didn't or couldn't appreciated the importance of the situation and fought over the remaining seats.
Timetables were torn up as governments flew stranded citizens back to their countries. The Foreign Office said that there was 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.
All the flights we were expected to do would be kept on the roster.
After the panic, there was an eerie silence. The airports were not moving fast. Most airlines parking their jets on taxiways and off ramps because they cut capacity. Satellite images from around the world showed their cruciform shapes bristling from every corner, arranged in neat, herringbone designs. The engines of those who were off loaded into theboneyards were filled with a preservative oil and bags of desiccant distributed through the empty cabins to guard against rust and mould. Two-thirds of the world's planes were grounded.
John, the British Airways pilot I spoke to, suddenly found his schedule empty. Every single one of our flights would be canceled as the month went on, and we would get our roster as normal. He had 100 days without flights.
More than 80 countries had suspended flights by the start of May. There was nothing left to fly. Without payments for flight time and stopovers, John's income was tumbling. He had been at the company long enough to escape the axe himself, and so he and his colleagues accepted a cut to basic pay as part of efforts to stem job losses.
Others in the industry were not as fortunate. Some airlines buckled immediately in the chaos. Alitalia ceased operations in October after a fall in bookings, and Flybe collapsed in March after a Covid-related fall in bookings. The worst year on record for the aviation industry was in 2020 when passenger numbers on international flights fell by 75.6%.
The carriers that did survive had to think outside the box. Some retired older, trouble-ridden aircraft early, rather than paying for storage. Tim Clark, the CEO of the company that converted passenger jets into cargo planes, said it had converted into a miniUPS to get by. Finnair left business class seats in place, with only a thin curtain to separate them from the economy section.
Two-thirds of the world's planes were grounded. The image is from the iStock photo.
Many airlines slashed staff across Europe, and many tens of thousands of ground staff, cabin crew and airport workers are also under threat. You can find the pilots online. A former Flybe pilot has pinned a video of her final landing as a calling card for future employers, and she is available immediately. She sells flight-themed T-shirts and calendars online.
New pilots have racked up tens of thousands of pounds of debt while training. These expensive credentials are not valid without regular flight or simulator time. A type rating that qualifies you to fly a particular aircraft, such as a Boeing or an A320, can cost up to £30,000.
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. He flew virtual flights over virtual worlds as he waited for the real world to change.
Ward is familiar with virtual worlds. The host presents arena events where the gaming championships are held. She spent seven months away from home in the last year, never staying more than a week. Berlin! Rio! The city of Shanghai! Miami! It's Sydney! Travel was part of the package as her career was taking off.
She works in front of the camera and on stage for 16 hours a day. She tells me that it is a high emotional experience. At the end of it all, you travel home and can't really talk for a while. It is like being hit by a truck. The 2020 final of the Intel Extreme Masters was played in an empty arena in Poland after the Polish authorities pulled their mass- event licence. More than a million watched online. Her work diary went blank after that.
There were difficulties in adapting to an online world. In-person tournaments are usually held using a single local server. A fraction of a second delay at the top levels might be the deciding factor in the fight for a seven-figure prize pot. It is easier to cheat when all the players are working from home.
It took only a few months to get the show back on the road, thanks to the tech-friendly organizers and an existing culture of watching games in real time. The return of international championships boosted audiences because of an influx of traditional sports fans looking for a new fix. She went from travelling to five continents in a month to long days filming alone in a room in her house after her work schedule filled up again. She became proficient with green screens, nodding into empty space and watching herself superimposed on to distant rooms.
The hotel rooms and lounge have been replaced by video calls from 8am to 8pm.
She realized that it was one thing to be on stage and another thing to be working long days from your spare room. She adjusted her body clock to American or Asian times. It was difficult. She didn't see the sun. She missed her partner. I put a bed in a different room because I didn't want him to wake up. She gave up on the overnight events. Many things can be found on the internet. Your body cannot.
Finance requires its workers to undertake a lot of international travel. A senior executive at an investment company based in New York said that she would travel a minimum of twice a month and often twice a week. She traveled to Mexico City, So Paulo, San Francisco, Toronto and New York in a matter of days.
She was able to tag on trips home to London because she was travelling a lot to Europe. I felt like I was having it all: being able to live in a different country but still go home frequently, and not have to pay for it. Living abroad feels different now. She can't stay in touch with her old life anymore. She misses her family and friends.
The aircraft was parked in Alice Springs, Australia, on March 31, 2021. Matthew Abbott is the photographer for Panos Pictures.
Work is more difficult and less enjoyable. I was mainly seeing deals that had started before Covid. I had done a lot of relationship building and we could go into the virtual version. When you are starting something new it gets really difficult. It is almost impossible to build a good relationship on a call. You are more cautious and indecisive because you don't have that familiarity. Brazilians like to do everything face to face, and cultural factors play a role here. She just returned from a four-hour conference call to Rio for a deal in which she was unable to interact with the other parties in person because of the language and cultural barriers.
It is less fun now that the hotel rooms, starlit nights in So Paulo and the business-class lounge have been replaced by back-to-back video calls from 8am until 8pm. It is hard to find a few undisturbed hours for thinking, reading, strategising. She says it is the same job, but it doesn't feel the same.
The grounding of flights caused major problems for scientists. The real-time study of changes to permafrost, ice sheets and tropical forests was put off indefinitely because of an unprecedented year-long gap in the data.
About 90 scientists, technicians and crew members were stranded on an icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean for two months after Norwegian travel restrictions halted their planned flights. They had to suspend data gathering for several weeks to sail south to meet ships in ice-free international waters.
The EastGRIP project, an international facility where ice-core drilling offers vital insight into the Earth's climatological history, was forced to take a year off because of restrictions to non essential air travel. The researchers are looking for answers to questions that are growing more urgent as the ice sheet shrinks.
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Commercial airliners are major contributors of meteorological observations, feeding temperature, humidity, pressure and wind speed information to the World Meteorological Organisation as they cruise. Normally, planes from 43 different airlines give about a million observations a day. easyJet normally provides 16,000, but it did not send a single one. Thanks to the Met Office's network of automated weather stations, the UK was spared the worst of the impact.
The air transport shutdown has given some people an opportunity to study. Climatologists and atmospheric scientists have been able to measure the impact of the sudden change in carbon emissions and the burning of fossil fuels because of the restrictions on transport and industrial activity. One researcher said that they did not think they could have designed a better experiment.
In the spring of 2020, researchers found that air pollution had a slight warming effect as the aerosols reflected sunlight away from the planet. The impact was small and temporary. It was larger than the impact of the drops in CO2 emissions.
The British Airways aircraft was parked at the airport. The National Police Air Service is part of the PA.
Climatologists are hopelessly conflicted when it comes to air travel and our carbon footprints. Climate scientists tend to fly more often than other researchers because of remote fieldwork and the number of overseas conferences discussing international responses to the climate crisis, according to a 2020 study. A single gathering of the American Geophysical Union, attended by 28,000 scientists, was calculated to be 177m air miles. The weekly emissions of the city of Edinburgh are about three tonnes of CO2 a scientist. The Cop26 summit in Glasgow is thought to have released about 102,500 tons of CO2, equal to the annual emissions of more than 8,000 UK residents.
People told me that the global grounding of flights had challenged their industry to rethink how their work could continue without air travel. The power structure of the development sector has been disrupted by air travel restrictions, which resulted in a humanitarian worker being separated from his wife and infant children for six months. The turnover of international staff slowed, allowing for stronger relationships and greater consistency.
Those under flight paths feel like a distant dream with jets roaring back into action.
Work-related travel has been subject to greater oversight in the corporate sector. The culture of industries in which jumping on a plane used to be second nature is marked by the staff being asked to consider whether it is necessary. Half of aviation's carbon footprint is caused by frequent-flying "super emitters" who represent just 1% of the world's population.
Demand for air travel has increased by just under 6 percent a year since 2010, and studies estimate that by the year 2050, aviation will account for 25% of all global carbon emissions. Demand has been badly affected by the Pandemic, resulting in a 40% fall in related CO2 emissions, which are not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2025.
The challenge we face has been thrown into sharp relief by Covid, 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 is the largest decline since the second world war, but still falls short of the 7.6% cut believed necessary to prevent the planet from warming more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
We are returning to our carbon-guzzling ways. Those living under busy flight paths feel like a distant dream with jets roaring back into action. A careers coach and creative writing tutor lives under the flight path 27R. It is a lovely area with an easy stroll away from the main attractions, including Kew Gardens and the Thames to the north and Richmond Park to the south. She says the planes are a problem. They fly over her house at three or four in the morning. It is like living below a motorway, which gets busy as the summer gets hotter, just as you want to spend time outside.
She remembers the early days of lock up with a perverse pleasure. In the past, incoming flights at Heathrow have fallen to 60 or fewer. She still remembers it as a sunlit time, even though it was frightening and she didn't know whether to go out. There were no planes overhead. The roar of the South Circular road had been muffled. She says it was extraordinary and ethereal. The sky was empty. They knew it wouldn't start up again in a moment's time. It felt like the first time in a long time that they could relax.
All hell was breaking loose outside, on the television, on the radio. She found peace in the garden. She breathed in. Listened. She heard the sound of birds and the wind.
I took my first flight south since the Pandemic. I watched the sunlight glint off the sea with a pewter sheen as I lifted off from the archipelago where I live. The edges of the coastline were frilled. It seemed like a whole country spread out below me made a difference to my understanding of the land and my place in it. I felt my sense of being part of the country and the world expanded as my gaze went up. For the first time in a long time, the world seemed accessible and real.
All of London was below me when we made our descent. The arch of Wembley and the cross-hatched streets. The plane flew over the city. The Albert Hall was the sparkling cut-sapphire of the pond. There were train tracks that were striating the ground, long and thin. I felt something inside me that I hadn't felt in a while. I realized how my world had changed over the past few months.
The UK Lockdown is in pictures.
Hold-still-the-uk-lockdown-in-pictures is a film.
Many of us had a feeling that we deserved all this at the beginning of the first lock down. We had been riding for a while. We had been too busy and globe-trotting for too long. It is hard to remember the sense of moral responsibility that we used to have, now that we have spent so much time craving international travel.
The plane made a turn that felt like a handbrake turn and swooped over the city, and I thought about how lucky I was to see it from this perspective. John said his job was really a treat when he returned to the cockpit after so long. He missed it.
Many of us were forced to make changes during the global travel shutdown. Research has shown that people rediscovered the value of family, of their local area, even the joys of sharing life at a distance through virtual means. Being in one place has been a silver lining. A new husband and a baby are on the way for the esports host, who is pregnant with their first child. She won't be flying a lot. The investment executive and her partner bought a house upstate. She is not sure how her old globe-trotting habits would fit in with this new settled way of being. Being forcibly grounded has brought a sense of groundedness to many.
The plane turns into a low haze. Alexander is a toddler and taking his first steps. The roar of the engine could be heard in her garden. A hundred thousand other people are outside in the streets and they can see my descent.