Monday, May 4, 2020

Airline transportation after the epidemic. The problem is being solved, but not the way you would have imagined

That's how a hydrogen-powered plane could look like. Honestly, it is not very impressive: it looks more like an Elvis sighting and one may even reasonably doubt that this thing could fly. If it were easy to power planes using hydrogen, someone would be working at real prototypes rather than just these drawings. 

Airlines have been on the edge of collapse for many years and for many good reasons, but the real problem, at the basis of all the others, is the need for fossil fuels. Airplanes are voracious beasts: they consume around 7% of the world's production of fuels and fueling planes represents about 20%-30% of the costs of operating an airline. So far, most companies have survived the vagaries of the oil market, but it should be obvious that crude oil cannot last forever. In addition, there is the problem of the pollution generated by fossil fuels, especially in terms of contributing to global warming. One result is the phenomenon called "flight shame," another headache for airline managers.

So, if you want to keep planes in the air, you need to get rid of the need for fossil fuels. And that turns out to be nearly impossible, at least for the current generation of planes. I already discussed the technical and financial aspects of alternatives to fossil fuels. Hydrogen is a good fuel for rockets, but not for civilian planes, it is a technological and financial nightmare, Biofuels can't help: there is no way that you can step production to levels sufficient to feed the current fleet of civilian planes. Electric planes are a nice idea for small planes, but there is no way that you can build an electric equivalent of a Boeing 747. Wide-body planes are optimized for the fuel they use, kerosene, produced by refining crude oil. And there is just so much that you can do to improve technologies that have already been optimized nearly to death. Spending a lot of money, you can refine and retouch this and that, and make the plane gain maybe a fraction of one percent in performance, but that doesn't eliminate the need for fossil fuels.

So, airlines reacted to the problem by cutting costs as much as possible. That was obtained by having passengers undergo all sorts of humiliations: crowded planes, long waiting times, unreliable flights, impossible schedules, non-existing ground services, horrible on-board food, and more. To that, add the ubiquitous harassment suffered by travelers at the entrance gates of airports. The whole looks more like the treatment inflicted on war prisoners en route for a concentration camp. But passengers seemed to be happy to accept being mistreated in exchange for low price tickets. 

But, eventually, the solution chosen by airlines led them to a no-way-out street: there is a limit to how much you can cut corners. Ryanair even proposed to carry standing passengers on board, but it was nothing more than an advertising stunt. And then there came the coronavirus epidemic dealing a terrible blow to the already strained airlines. Right now, it is hard to see how passenger service can be restarted: people are so scared that they would accept to fly on a plane only if everyone were wearing scuba diving suits equipped with autonomous oxygen tanks. Probably the scare will abate in the coming months, and it is probably possible to introduce some kind of a "health passport" that would allow passengers to sit near each other without fearing to be infected. But, in the meantime, with the industry deeply in the red, you can kiss the rotors of the turbines goodbye.

Nevertheless, as I tend to say, for everything that happens there is a reason for it to happen, and the destiny of the airlines was already written on the wings of their planes. Last year, the demise of the Airbus A380, the flower of the European Aerospace industry, was a death knell for the very concept of wide-body planes. It was known, and the effort of the aerospace industry was already moving in a different direction.

It is said that when the Titanic sank, the third class passengers remained locked in the lower decks and drowned. These passengers, evidently, were considered as a nuisance. Today, I think that the elites have already understood that there really is no reason why planes should have an "economy class." The result is a new generation of planes that only the rich are supposed to use. By getting rid of the commoners on board we can have less pollution, faster planes, lower use of fuel, and more comfortable flights. And here an example of the result: the Aerion AS2, a supersonic jet for just 8-12 passengers.

The Aerion AS2, an example of the new generation of passenger planes: supersonic business jets (SSBJs)

That is just an example, but the buzzword with the airlines right now is "bizliners," planes (not necessarily supersonic) designed and operated to cater to special groups of people who can afford them: politicians, business people, sports teams, etc. Just not the kind of planes that we, humble commoners, will ever be able to use. But so is life: flying was a privilege that many of our generation enjoyed, but nothing lasts forever. At least, we won't feel guilty about flying anymore!

A comment from Ugo Bardi's personal troll, Mr. Kunning Druger

So, Mr. Bardi -- I can imagine you gloating while you were writing this post, weren't you? Exactly what you and your friends always wanted, especially the braided witch from Sweden. You always hated the idea of ordinary people enjoying the benefits that fossil fuels bring to humankind. Flying, for instance. And now you think you are winning, right? I am sure that your friends in high places promised you a seat in one of those shiny new bizliners, I can see you gloating, indeed. Well, think it over. You were one of the crowd that was claiming "peak oil," right? It was another scam directed to enslave us, the people, to the powers that be. And now, with oil prices at historical lows, your scam has been exposed: there is no such thing as "peak oil." Oil is abundant as ever and planes will keep flying, no matter what you write in your ridiculous rants.


  1. Its more fun travelling on a sailing ship.

  2. thank you Ugo, Druger the Bozo not withstanding

  3. An interesting post - and thought.

    The plane is nice and sleek - designed for a small army of Elite - but who shall sustain the infrastructure and facilities/resources required to maintain such a small Elite? Is it possible? I think not.

    Even Technocracy in a World which is devoid of large, plentiful, and cheap fossil resources may be Overshoot. Might I say it is Overshoot?

    It would appear that Human Collosus is about to get a crash course in sustainability.

    Even Michael Moore is being dismissed:

    Executive produced by activist and filmmaker Michael Moore, points out that the new documentary Planet of the Humans, dares to say what no one else will say on this Earth Day - the leading ‘green’ environmental activists, including Al Gore, have taken their followers down the wrong road - selling out the real environmental movement to some of wealthy corporate interests in America and he world.

  4. Ah, what a charactonym, the cunning man who dredges up dirt on people like Dr. Bardi. Ha!

    If you are going to dredge, you should learn to read more accurately.

    In the past, Dr. Bardi admitted he was wrong about Peak Oil.

    However, he is correct that fuel prices squeezed the hell out of airline financials and their subsequent cheapening of service for Manzoni's little people, most of us common folk, was unpleasant and degrading.

    Dr. Bardi also points out what both Peak Oil people and non-Peakers know: for flying in commercial aircraft, there is NO substitute for fossil fuels.

    I do not know why you attribute "glee" to Dr. Bardi's fact-based analysis and link him, through this article, to Greta Thunberg's science-based critique of fossil fuels as the major cause of global warming.

    These erroneous attributions of yours are no more than 7th grade name calling.

    No doubt Dr. Bardi enjoyed and would still enjoy affordable and pleasant air travel. It really doesn't exist anymore. And, CV-19 is driving nails in commercial air's coffin.

    Dr. Bardi is just observing facts and making conclusions. He is not trying to enslave anyone.

  5. First, a small aside. As Walter Lord chronicled, the thrd class passsengers on the Titanic were not left to drown. In fact,a woman in third class had a far better chance of survival (74%) that a man in first class (32%).

    Turning to the main topic, passenger aeroplanes are on the way out, but they are not the only way to fly. Everyone seems to have forgotten buoyant flight, and the stunning success of LZ127, Graf Zeppelin, which flew over a million miles in its nine year career, without the loss of a single life. The luxurious Hindenburg may have looked expensive, but it was five times as efficient per passenger km as the A380. And an airship can indeed be fuelled with renewable energy. Moreover, it is held aloft not by burning fuel, but by helium gas, which is also a 100% renewable resource.

    1. I love the idea of airships, too. And they could run on solar energy. Just don't say that helium is a renewable resource. Once it is lost in the atmosphere, it is lost forever. We can use hydrogen for airships, if we are careful,

    2. Ah... and i know that the idea that the passengers of the Titanic were left to drown is mostly a legend. That's why I started the sentence with "it is said that" -- it is an example, not a historically accurate statement. I could have cited the case of the Zong, when the slaves transported on board were drowned by the crew, but that was a bit too gruesome!

    3. Helium isn't renewable in any normal sense and it's largely a byproduct of natural gas extraction.

    4. Ugo, Helium is not lost forever. It is continually being created in the Earth's crust by the radioactive decay of Uranium 238. And since U238 has a half life of 4.5 billion years, we will run out of sunlight before we run out of helium.

    5. That's correct, Robert. But we don't normally extract helium from the flow coming from uranium decay. We extract it from the stocks accumulated in methane deposits. It is always the same problem: extracting from flows is forever, from stocks it is not.

    6. Ugo, many thanks for your reply. And your comment that we should extract from flows rather than stocks is one with which I wholeheartedly agree. It is the only way forward that might avoid catastrophe. I greatly admire your efforts to that end; more power to you.

  6. Well, not all peak oil thought went to waste even though we now see the death of consumer aviation as caused by health concerns instead. PO called for the end of aviation except for the rich, connected and the military. I am not saying aviation will be dead completely but it is likely because of this pandemic and the economic repercussions, consumer aviation is over as we know it. There will likely be a return to the 60s when flights were much lower. I remember as a kid the excitement of picking up a relative from an airport in the 60s. Private aviation may actually increase as a vacuum is filled for the need to commute specialization around. Globalism is still here and requires movement. Instead what we may see is the difficulty of rebooting consumer aviation of discretionary travel. Economies of scale will impact affordability which will surely be a more powerful force than policy to return to growth.

    This also means tourism will be forced to adapt. This means degrowth for many areas dependent on offering their beauty for a price. It also means these areas of beauty may be easier to preserve. Mass travel is killing the world and destroying unique human locals and natural ecosystems. Lower emissions from travel may help efforts to adapt climate issues. Not all is bad but it will be dramatic. The consequences are many. For example, my wife is Italian from mountains north of Belluno. She goes every year for a month or two to see her family. We don’t yet know how that is going to change.

    I personally think this is a positive change for the world. Our travel culture is a requirement in a world where our support is from elsewhere. Yet, this should not mean the lavishly discretionary of flights whenever and wherever we want. The downside of this reduce flying is as mentioned economies of scale. Even important and required flight will be much more expensive and the availability less. The upside is more in my opinion but I do permaculture in the Ozarks of Missouri. Nobody comes here so my livelihood is not at risk like a place that relies on tourism. My REAL Green is focused on localism. I avoid travel because of my life system. This makes my life easier and, in some ways, validates what I have been preaching.

    Places that have adapted over a generation or two to good income from tourism have tough choices ahead. This makes adaptation more difficult. There is a price to localism and it will be bore out by all in lower affluence and fewer choices. Yet, there is an upside to this and that is the strength of simplicity and proper scale. If fortitude can be found and a local has viability to supply the basics of support some places will adapt in a way that offers more meaning. Other places will suffer until they scale properly economically. This process was coming anyway so don’t miss the train and get on with a move away from globalism and affluence towards localism and simplicity.

  7. A while ago read an article in which they had researched the principle: "women and children first". It turned out that the Titanic was the last ship disaster to follow this principle (as far as we know)...

  8. There are many 'conveniences/luxuries/entitlements' we will have to (or, should I say, will be forced to) abandon in the impending collapse. If we had the foresight to save ourselves a whole array of energy- and resource-intensive activities would be eliminated. Alas, I am doubtful we have the intelligence or fortitude to follow any type of sustainable path forward and are more likely to expedite our journey over the cliff through techno-cornucopian attempts to 'save' ourselves from ourselves. Of course, only time will tell...

  9. I and many others have long predicted the demise of commercial air travel but who woulda thunk it that a little chunk of escaped RNA engineered by Dr Faucci/NIH and the Bat Lady of Wuhan would be the vector to bring it down.

  10. Elites demand limited liability:

    Professor Neil Ferguson - whose dire coronavirus predictions prompted worldwide lockdown measures still in place - broke his own advice on the need for strict social distancing to hook up with his married lover, according to the Telegraph.

  11. I quit flying a couple of years ago when airports became crazy. However, zepplins have open air decks, and prop planes still have operable windows. Kind of a bumpy ride, but if the educated classes can keep their all important frequent flyer miles and the bragging rights that go with them then they will adapt

  12. Re: Hydrogen vs. Helium for Airships:

    Dr. Bardi, I have heard that the lifting power of Hydrogen is about four times than that of Helium. Is this true?

    Antoinetta III

  13. Not really. It is given by the difference of the air density - the gas density. So, even though helium is twice as heavy as hydrogen, the difference in lifting power is very small

  14. The down slope of a number of limits here Ugo. The super size aircraft was made possible by cheap fuel pre 1974. The 747, DC10 all arrived and went into obselence. Aerodynamics hit the boundaries of the laws of physics in the 1960's. Double the speed you have to square the power. Aeroplanes are very very expensive to produce using a large amount of exotic alloys and manufactured components that still has to be assembled by men and women, cannot robotosise most of this, Boeing tried has nearly sent them bankrupt. The era of mass cheap travel is over, there are a lot of now very large expensive ground assets such as terminals airports that will need to be maintained and kept operating at significant cost. But mass travel is a thing of the past. The marked is deflating probably not as bad as we think but basically a ticket anywhere will be a first class rates. Air travel started as a preserve of the very rich and officialdom in the 1930's. You could fly in luxury from London via Marseille, Lake Bracciano, Athens, Lake Gallillee across the Arabian peninsula and onto Australia with full cabin service en route - it cost 25000 in todays dollars.

    The tragedy of this for us is the adjustment. Humans love to travel it seems almost in our genes, we love to wonder and see the world, we have been doing it forever so to do it again will mean we go back to a less speedy but equally effective method, ships, trains, horse and foot. I think as resources diminish and capital evaporates we will struggle to do this but it can be done. But this type of ration scarcity will be the norm. Will aviation survive this, of course it is too valuable a tool for us all to let go but it will be very small and the preserve again of the rich and the powerful.

    1. Flight will again become very expensive per passenger, and perhaps airports will be converted mostly to freight hubs.

      Neolithic humans traveled vast distances of course, on foot:
      unfortunately, the FF Age has made this most unpleasant except in designated country parks and reserves.

  15. Ugo is correct. The lifting power is the difference between the density of air and that of the lifting gas. For hydrogen, the equation is 14.4 - 1.0; for helium it is 14.4 - 2.0. The difference is thus about 7%.

  16. Ah the airship promised so much but it actually could not compete with the lifting power of a curved wing shape only problem for both is you still need thrust to move the machine forward, one for speed the other for speed and then lift. Both have to overcome gravity. Using pressure differential high to low as a wing does is a much more elegant solution - that is why it worked for birds but you need an engine or two or three or four for human occupied vessels and an engine needs yes fuel of some sort. There is no viable replacement for hydrocarbons and once they diminish as they have been for some time, you either ration it or give it up.

  17. The problem of "Jets for the Rich" is an infrastructure problem. These jets need the same kind of airports with the same services and smooth runways the Tourista plnes for J6P visiting Hawaii for vacation need. Problem being of course that even the filthy rich can't afford to fund these airports.

    Bezos, Gates & Buffet will continue to Jet Set for a while longer than Uncle Harry and Aunt Martha do, but not all that much longer. Economically, the Dog won't Hunt.

    Or perhaps in this case I should say "That Bird won't Fly".




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)