Crash landing for global aviation

After corona, what will be left of the once unstoppable airline industry?

Photo by Patrick Donnelly on Unsplash

My favorite industry is bleeding. As the global lockdown continues, one of the hardest hit industries is aviation, and this week has seen a daily stream of grounded airlines announcing staff reductions of 50% or more.

As an avid traveler and self-confessed travel geek, this saddens me. I have followed the industry with childish fascination since my first flight decades ago, and I have been fortunate to travel the world extensively, if a bit less in recent years.

(According to my stats on flightmemory.com, in my lifetime of flying I’ve tracked 385,463 miles, equivalent to 1.6 times the distance to the moon.)

Used to change

Airlines have seen shakeups before, with waves of consolidation as state-owned carriers became gradually more competitive, some losing out, others gaining muscle. De-regulation across America and then Europe saw the rise of low-cost carriers, and more efficient aircraft saw fares decline as legacy airlines adapted to a new reality. The financial crisis was a hit to the industry, yes, but demand slowly but surely crept back, as fares continued their downward spiral.

We have grown accustomed to ever-growing demand, with airport and airlines a sure bet for the future. In a globalized world, how could demand go any other way than up?

Last year we saw a small blip in that, with Greta Thunberg’s “flight shame” actually catching on to a degree that people in Sweden were flying less, at least domestically. Was this a forbearer of a world where people would travel less in order to save the environment?

Towards a new normal

Once again, Corona changes everything. One thing is the current standstill, which is bad enough. Nobody has enough capital to endure this for much longer.

But when restrictions eventually ease and we’re out of the crisis, then what? Basic supply and demand stipulates that if people want to fly, there will be companies willing to fly them. But at what cost? Many businesses have now seen how well things can be run virtually – this could very well mean a permanently lower demand for business travel. That could change the industry drastically.

A new report predicts that after the crisis, only five major airlines will remain in Europe, with much higher fares than previously.

For years I have had a dream that it would be awesome to work in the airline industry. For the time being, however, I count myself fortunate that those ambitions have not yet come to life. I do hope that whatever survives will be able to flourish once again.

What will become of Hong Kong?

On a wall in my bedroom hangs a framed photo of the Hong Kong skyline. I’m quite proud of the shot, which I took myself during a short visit 18 years ago. You can see the Bank of China Tower in the middle, and the old Star Ferry Terminal in the foreground (before they tore it down).

The picture is a testament to my deep fascination with a place to which I have no obvious connection. I have friends and former colleagues who have lived here, whereas I myself have visited only three times, and then quite briefly (plus transiting the airport a handful of times).

The city has, however, left a strong impression on me as a melting pot, a fusion of East and West, and a place with a rich and somewhat turbulent history.

I have actively read books set here, notably John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour and James Clavell’s Tai-Pan, but also made my way through The Last Governor, a non-fiction account of the former colony’s final years under British rule.

In one of my earlier forays into poetry, I even wrote my own ‘ode to Hong Kong’:

descend into the haze

simplified or traditional
neither is sufficient
ninety-nine years is forever
where skyscrapers come and go
at the blink of an eye

man of the world, man on the street
living together and never meeting
six-lane highways to future and hope
restricted access, divided in unity

up on the peak the air is clear
the city shrouded in smog
but from below, looking up
even the sky’s no limit

fragrant harbour
an oasis in the world
belonging nowhere
encompassing all

It is with sadness I watch what is happening in the city this year. The ‘haze’ I was referring to back in 2003, was just smog and masses of people; not tear gas and a murky future.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a 50-year deal ensuring “one country, two systems”. This meant guaranteeing the people of Hong Kong freedom of speech and assembly, notably absent in mainland China. Nearly half-way through that period though, it seems plausible that Hong Kong in 2047 will look much more like Shanghai, and much less like London.

Whether Hong Kong is Chinese or not is a moot point; the handover is long gone, as is the era of colonialism. Should Beijing intervene more heavy-handedly, it is well within their right. What is more, for all our nostalgia and solidarity, nobody will be rushing to Hong Kong’s aid. You don’t offend the dragon on its home turf. Just look what happened to the NBA.

And whatever importance Hong Kong has as an economic powerhouse may eventually be eclipsed by Shanghai and Shenzhen. By copying its economic success, minus the freedoms, China may eventually render Hong Kong obsolete, along with any democratic ambitions its people may have had.

When I look at the photo on my wall, however much I want to support the protesters and their cause, these are the prospects that come to mind. I do hope a brighter future is still possible.

The Road to Norway

E6_Uddevalla

Saying a final farewell to my Grandmother this week was also a final closing of a chapter. And it was a journey of mourning to a destination that used to be filled with joy.

There are many ways you can travel from Denmark to Norway. And being half Norwegian, I have tried most of them growing up, as we would visit my maternal grandparents for summer and Christmas holidays, and more.

GeltingNord01

I have flown to Fornebu, and later Gardermoen Airport. I have twice taken the train from Copenhagen. I have travelled by ferry, Copenhagen-Oslo, Frederikshavn-Oslo, or even Hundested-Sandefjord, where an infamous trip on a ship named Gelting Nord had many of us seasick. On that trip, I would have been younger than my oldest daughter is now. What are the memories that will shape her life?

For me the memory, despite the alternative routes, will primarily be driving on E6, the main road through Sweden from Copenhagen to Oslo. This is our family storytelling, and we have travelled the route often enough to recognize and appreciate the waypoints and notice the changes.

The first section in Sweden would resemble Denmark: flat and uneventful. But before long we would scale the massive Hallandsås, bigger than any hill in Denmark, and with long queues of trucks in the old days before freeway standards.

North of Varberg we would reach the first tunnel: an early harbinger of the mountainous land which was our destination. The number and length of tunnels would intensify as we proceeded north, and has also increased over time. As kids the sport was to hold our breath for the duration of the tunnel.

E6_Tunneljpg.jpg

There was Gothenburg, the big city we only knew from the freeway: heavy traffic, a tunnel under the river, a high bridge across it, and potentially a pit stop at Burger King.

E6_Tingstad.jpg

There was “the siren in the tree”: a resting area somewhere in Sweden where we once stopped to sleep in the car. During the night there was a break-in at the shop next-door, with police sirens waking us up. We were untouched by the event, but the location became a family landmark.

To pass time, my brother and I would have fun with the place names on the way, such as Mastemyr, Dingle (a giant lived here), Sarpsborg (with an obscure animal called a Sarp featured in its coat of arms), and later the signpost to Åmål (made famous by the Swedish film Fucking Åmål).

E6_Sarpsborg

Later, on the very day I obtained my driver’s license, we were on the road again, and my first experience driving without an instructor was somewhere on the E6. Hills were something I had not been trained for.

Svinesund.jpg

As we came closer to our destination, the anticipation would grow: crossing the stunning Svinesund to enter Norway, passing through Oslo, seeing signposts to Drammen, exiting the tunnel near Lier with a view of the city, passing over Drammen, catching the first glimpse through the trees of the house, and driving up the last stretch of gravel to the end of the road and my grandparents’ house.

Skoger.jpg

It was a wonderful place, with ample opportunities to play inside and outside. But more importantly, it was a place filled with love, warmth, hospitality, generosity, and fun, which my grandparents created for us and for many others.

Skoger2

The house was sold long ago, a few years after my Grandpa died in 2002. And the final years of my Grandma’s life were such that death came as a blessing. At 97, she had had a long and good life, and will now rest until the grand reunion at the end of time.

The E6 is mostly freeway these days, and while the journey may have lost some of its allure and now its previous primary endpoint, the memory will remain forever in our hearts.

Flying to Chicago

Tomorrow night I will celebrate a silver anniversary: crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the 25th time. And no route has more significance than Chicago-Copenhagen (ORD-CPH), a journey that has impacted my life. This is a story with several chapters.

1986 (CPH-AMS-ORD-SBN)
I am six years old and have never before set foot in an airplane. The world as I know it is changing: we are moving to America. I will have to learn a new language and am somewhat worried of the great unknown, but flying is certainly an experience.

We are in KLM business class, sitting on the upper deck of a 747. My brother and I each have a window seat, and are treated to a visit to the cockpit. Security worries were fewer back then.

02-kenneth-og-marit

Our final destination is not Chicago, but Berrien Springs, Michigan, which will be our home for four years. We are there temporarily, living in a basement apartment for much of the time, but as a child temporary means less. This is our home, and this is in no small measure where I grew up. The city of Chicago is huge, with as many people as our home country, but several hours away – the place we go for school field trips, occasional Christmas shopping, and most importantly the airport, our connection with the old world.

1990 (ORD-AMS-FBU)
I am ten years old. No business class this time, and the flight itself is less memorable. But after four years in Michigan we have been looking forward to returning to our native Denmark, bringing back a larger world-view and amazing memories. My connection to America remains, but the memories begin to fade as I grow older.

1997 (BLL-FRA-ORD)
I am sixteen years and in high school. My parents have gone back to Michigan for a nine-month period, while I remain in Denmark in boarding school.
This trip brings up many feelings, missing my parents an important one of them. Once again there is a fear of the unknown, since I have not travelled alone before. “Landing card – what is that?”

But more than anything else this is a trip of nostalgia. As a teenager, seven years seems a lifetime, and coming back to America also means coming back to a lost childhood. Seeing the Chicago skyline from the airplane (“skyscrapers!”) is something I will never forget. (For some reason, I listened to Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto for the first time during that flight and will forever link this heart-breaking music to that memory.)

17-34

This trip and a consecutive one a few months later rekindle my connection with America, make me feel somehow different from my Danish peers, and also teaches me the pain of distance. A few years later, my parents will move to Australia, settling the fact that long-distance is here to stay.

2010 (CPH-ORD)
Many years have passed, and the third chapter of this story has my parents once again living in Berrien Springs, Michigan. But this time with more permanence, here to work, not study, and with a house of their own. Not very far from where we lived in the 80’s, and with a basement which resembles the apartment which was our home.

Winter 10-68

Since then flying has become mainstream and cheaper, and with a direct Copenhagen flight visiting for just a week at a time makes sense. I have also married, and my wife joins me on her first trip to America, enjoying the sights and attractions of rural Michigan in winter (you don’t need more than a week for that).

2014 (CPH-ORD)
Several trips later, this one is different yet again. My first-born daughter is with us on this her first flight, for an extended Christmas vacation. Flying long-haul with a baby is indeed possible, and we manage fairly well, but it’s not quite as relaxing as going by yourself.

Christmas 14-05

The trip once again brings back memories, and singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in my childhood church my daughter on my arm is probably for me the most sentimental one.

2017 (CPH-ORD)
We have come full circle. Now I have two daughters. Flying to Chicago in February means not a lot of other passengers, so the trip itself is easy.

img_0319

But this trip is also the definitive end of a chapter. My parents will finally move back to Denmark later this year, which means that I will have no reason to visit Michigan again in the foreseeable future. This prospect by far outweighs any sentiment I may have had to this place. And with the current political climate in the U.S., it is with some relief that I sever the connection for the time being. America has shaped me, and will continue to be a part of my story, but closing the door as others open up is not a bad thing.

About aebelskiver and medisterpolse

So apparently, there’s a little town in Iowa of some 600 people where half the people have Danish roots, and a large part of them celebrate this fact vigorously. Much less known than its Californian counterpart Solvang, Elk Horn, Iowa was featured in a Danish documentary aired last night on DR1.

For all its quirkiness, it was a wonderfully made and very honest film. The old people of Elk Horn think they’re speaking Danish with each other (they are to a degree, but with many broken words and a heavy South Jutland accent). The main staples of the town are aebelskiver and medisterpolse, eaten together for breakfast (which never happens in Denmark, I can tell you that much). And while the film portrayed a town in slow, but gradual decline, the one thing that seemed to tie these people together was their perceived Danishness, their common heritage.

This is normal in America, of course. Since everybody originally came from somewhere else (except the Indians they killed), the link to the old world and, for some people, memories of the Atlantic crossing is a big part of your identity. There is no doubt that the shared heritage plays a large part in tying this community together, as also highlighted by several characters in the film. That’s a good thing. But there are also downsides worth mentioning.

One thing is how quickly a shared memory veers so far from the original that it’s almost impossible to see any resemblance, apart from a few obvious elements (like the flag or the ubiquitous mermaid). The few Danish food items they have chosen to retain or the elements they see as typically Danish are hardly representative, nor are they in any way in tune with the reality of Denmark today. Many of the town dwellers have actually visited Denmark, but we hear two of them talking about what the country is like, based on a visit to Struer (in the rural west) in 1979, as if nothing has changed since then. In Elk Horn, nothing has seemingly changed since the town was first settled in 1901. This is laughable, perhaps, not also quite harmless.

Worse, in my opinion, is the notion of moving to a new place but keeping your feet so firmly planted in the soil you left behind. In Elk Horn’s early days, everybody was Danish, and everyone who was not ended up moving elsewhere. Even today new settlers to the town are quickly asked if they are Danish, and have Danish culture (Elk Horn style) thrust upon them. Is that something to be proud of? Why is it that many Danes are so proud of the Danish enclave of Solvang where a group of immigrants have refused to integrate, when they are so adamant that immigrants to Denmark should shy away from their old culture and adapt that of their surroundings? These people left their homeland for a reason – shouldn’t you be a part of the world you live in?

And the point is that in spite of Elk Horn’s Tivolifest and Danish windmill, these people are actually full bred Americans. Take politics. Iowa is notoriously a swing state, but even so, in the presidential election of 2012 the voters in Elk Horn precinct sided overwhelmingly with Mitt Romney (61% of the 643 votes). Similar figures were the case for House (60% Rep.) and Senate (65% Rep.). You can look this kind of stuff up online. And while it’s just one data point, it’s a pretty clear sign that in terms of real culture and opinions, Elk Horners (?) are probably more American than Danish.

On a personal note, one other thing struck me when watching the film. For although I am Danish, I also grew up in the rural Midwest, in a small town in Michigan. And there were many things I could recognize about this place with an unsettled sense of melancholy. For most purposes, rural towns no longer exist in Denmark. But here in the old American heartland, apparently they do. I do find some comfort in that.

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson lately, who famously began one of his travel books with the phrase “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” Bryson left his childhood home of Iowa and live abroad for many years, but coming back to Iowa, for all its seeming drabness he still felt that he belonged.

In a small town in Iowa, he philosophized: “I was seized with a huge envy for these people and their unassuming lives. It must be wonderful to live in a safe and timeless place, where you know everyone and everyone knows you, and you can all count on each other. I envied them their sense of community, their football games, their bring-and-bake sales, their church socials. And I felt guilty for mocking them. They were good people.” (The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, 1989, p. 193)

For the people of Elk Horn, I think – and hope – that this passage holds true. Who are we to judge? But do watch the film, if you understand Danish. It’s really good, and you can catch it online here.

Patriot Games

Patriotism fascinates me. Even though for many purposes I am reluctant about the concept of the nation state, there is something to be said about the emotional attachment to your country. And despite postmodernity and globalism this sentiment seems to be alive and well in many places across the globe.

Last week I had the pleasure of experiencing Norway’s Constitution Day in Oslo (17 May) for the first time. Our choir Camerata were welcomed by our friends in Uranienborg Vokalensemble to a day of celebrations and community across boundaries. And to me personally, it was a connection to my heritage that left a lasting, positive impression.

Oslo 17 mai

On other occasions I have curiously and even happily joined in national celebrations in Australia, the United States, Canada and Singapore. Denmark, however, is another matter. We could all agree on 17 May that it is a shame we don’t have anything similar in my home country. There may be good reasons for this, and for my own reluctance.

It is obvious that there are bad types of patriotism. It is not a pretty sight when patriotism devolves into loving your own country as opposed other countries: an excluding nationalism, instead of an including nationalism which embraces differences in the midst of all the unity. E pluribus unum.

This was the message in the church service in Oslo Cathedral on Constitution Day, the keyword being thankfulness. Being thankful for what you have been given, for the deeds of others before you (founding fathers, and previous generations), and turning that thankfulness outwards in embracing others and welcoming them into your community. This was the founding ideal of the United States. It should not, however, be allowed to mutate into fascism. This is a valid fear, and probably part of the reason why Danes are wary of patriotism.

Immigrant countries such as the United States and Australia have a natural head start here, compared to old-world countries. But remembering concepts such as Manifest Destiny, White Australia, or Apartheid, even that seems to be no guarantee.

Going back to Denmark, the Danes have a quirky way of believing our people, country and system to be the best in the world, while at the same time looking down on any explicit exhibition of patriotism. We are too good for that. In fact, better than everyone else. Ironic.

My own rootlessness also plays a part. Regular readers will know of my struggling with identity and continuous reluctance about staying in Denmark. Perhaps it’s easier to love a country that you have actively chosen, instead of one you happen to have been born in. I could definitely connect with my Norwegian heritage last weekend, but I’m sure the novelty will wear off eventually. And by emigrating to another country, would I really find the sense of belonging that is currently lacking? Probably not.

Where, then, to find that sense of belonging? An old gospel song comes to mind: This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through…

Other People’s Lives

We recently spent 25 days in the United States. There are many things you can do while travelling and we do try to put in a certain variety: visiting museums and tourist spots, sampling local foods, going to musical performances, shopping, etc. All on your standard Lonely Planet fare.

But there’s one thing that I think we focus much more on than many other travellers do. And that is the question of: what would it be like to live here?

We happily wander around neighbourhoods like the Upper East Side, Greenwich Village, and Brooklyn Heights (New York), Beacon Hill, Bunker Hill, and the Waterfront (Boston), trying (not always successfully) to look as inconspicuous as possible, wondering what it’s like to be a local.

Sure, other visitors also visit these places, but compared to more touristy spots in the Big Apple, Washington Square Park in the Village seemed positively devoid of outsiders. And I’m sure that at least some travellers occasionally stop to think about the life of the locals. But I suspect that we take it just that one step further and treat is not only as a fleeting thought, but as an opener for a lengthy and semi-serious discussion.

Instead of leaving it at “Oh, this street seems nice,” we’ll venture into “What kind of jobs could we find here,” “What would the commute be like,” “What kind of pay could we get,” and even look at unit prices in the window if we happen to pass by a local real estate agent. This has almost become a pastime of sorts for us, comparing the liveability of towns and cities we visit. We’ve done this in as different locations as Melbourne, Canberra, Darwin, New York, Boston, France, and probably others I’ve forgotten.

So what’s up? We still live in Denmark, and there are no immediate plans to the contrary. But I take it as yet a symptom that I don’t feel as bound to Denmark as my passport might indicate, neither am I completely settled in in my native country. I guess this is the perpetual wanderlust rearing its beautiful head once again.