A Guardian analysis showed that the number of aircraft had dropped by more than half in March 2020 compared to the same week in the previous year. The large drop in air traffic led to a temporary dip in greenhouse gas emissions.
There were still thousands of planes in the air because governments had been reluctant to restrict domestic air travel. In the US – the largest air market in the world – international flights were down by 72%, but domestic flights only by 18%, even though according to estimates, less than 10% of seats were filled by passengers in domestic flights. In the UK, international flights were down by 81%, but only by 60% for domestic flights. One of the few countries to suspend all domestic flights was India.
In many countries, airlines talked with the governments about rescue funding to avoid bankruptcy. The industry cited financial turmoil from the virus as a reason to weaken or delay environmental programs to reduce emissions, for example, the airline industry's plan to establish mandatory carbon offsets by 2027. Governments could insist, for instance, that any bailout of airlines would be tied to far more stringent reductions in aviation emissions. But the US Coronavirus relief package promised $60bn to airlines, without requiring any action to stem the climate emergency. Instead, the airlines were required to maintain a certain level of service, which may be leading to near-empty flights. Chinese airlines were also promised generous government support to make up for their losses. Most of the big ones were state-owned (China Eastern and China Southern) or could be nationalised.
The pandemic had forced adoption of working-from-home habits, online meetings, stay-cations and alternative modes of transport, thus reducing the need for long-haul business flights. If these new work behaviours persist beyond the pandemic, long-term emissions reductions could be achieved. However, once infections started stabilising in China, passengers began to get back in the air, and this could be the case in the rest of the world too.
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