The Future of Travel
In a Time of War
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2022 -- You cannot understand the future of travel if you do not understand the past. And it's critically important to understand that this is not 1914. Or 1938. It isn't 2014 or 2016 or 2019, either.

The incredibly reckless actions of the Russian thug Vladimir Putin this week will change the future of travel forever, but there is only so much we can learn about that future from what's gone on in the past.

A talking-head columnist 100 years from now may look upon Putin's invasion of Ukraine much as I assessed the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Humpty Dumpty couldn't put 1914 Europe back together again after that seismic event and Putin's attack may be looked upon the same way.

This isn't 1938, either. I urge you to ignore comparisons to Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who signed the disastrous Munich agreement with Hitler. Chamberlain was not a fool or a coward. He thought he was doing business with a ruthless, but essentially sane, dictator. His mistake was not understanding that Hitler craved war, not appeasement. A social progressive in deed and a conservative businessman by training, Chamberlain could not comprehend a beast whose only goal was chaos and death.

At this point, who's to say Putin hasn't gone round the mental bend, too? He's spent his post-KGB career pining to recreate the Soviet empire, but these are not the actions of a "savvy" (Trump's word) strongman. They are the actions of an untethered madman who seems intent on destroying the world order.

Most importantly, this isn't 2014. That's when Ukrainians threw off a Putin puppet during the Maidan Revolution. Putin reacted by invading Crimea. But that was a different kind of aggression. Crimea was never Ukrainian--it was grafted onto Ukraine by the Soviets in 1954--and was overwhelmingly Russian. Only about 15% of Crimea's residents were Ukrainian.

Should then-President Obama have concocted a more muscular response to Putin's Crimea campaign? Surely--and Obama will be forever stained for his Chamberlain-like stand. Still, Putin taking something from Ukraine that was never really Ukrainian seemed in 2014 like a bad reason to start World War III.

But the narcissistic bully Donald Trump magnified Obama's deadly miscalculations. Remember the timeline: In 2016, with the Republican nomination clinched, Trump made Paul Manafort his campaign chief. Manafort had been on the payroll of Viktor Yanukovych, the Putin puppet deposed during the Maidan Revolution. Manafort promptly rewrote the GOP platform to soften its support for the new Ukraine democracy. As President, Trump never missed an opportunity to denigrate NATO. In 2018, there was his toadying Helsinki performance when he publicly sided with Putin over the American security apparatus. In 2019, he withheld aid to Ukraine to shake down Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, for dirt about Joe Biden. So it's no surprise that Trump called Putin a genius this week while the rest of the world condemned him.

Biden's performance? TBD, but he didn't exactly shatter the Russian economy with today's sanctions. Even Boris Johnson, the feckless British Prime Minister, seemed more determined.

What's all this mean for the future of travel? Defining a "new normal" is a fool's errand, but we can say some things for sure.

West Texas Crude touched $100 a barrel this morning and Brent Crude, which more closely tracks the price of jet fuel, reached $105 a barrel for the first time since 2014. (See the chronological parallel?) That will surely push the price of airline tickets higher since airlines never plan for triple-digit oil prices. Do not be shocked if you again encounter fuel surcharges, a familiar dodge since upcharges aren't subject to the airlines' federal tax burden.

For at least as long as a shooting war rages, airlines will be forced to avoid the airspace over parts of western Russia, Moldova and Ukraine. They will be especially wary of the skies over the Donbas, the breakaway region of Ukraine that Russia supposedly is protecting with its invasion. You will recall that it was the Russian-leaning Donbas separatists who used Russian-supplied BUK surface-to-air missiles to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014.

And then there is Belarus, where the sky pirate Alexander Lukashenko forced a Ryanair jet to land so he could arrest a political enemy. The price of Putin's support during the Ryanair crisis was turning the previously unpredictable Lukashenko into a Russian vassal. Russian troops have been pouring over the Belorussian border into Ukraine this week and Lukashenko has pledged eternal fealty to Putin's goals.

Avoiding such a huge swath of airspace will add time to travel from the United States and many parts of Europe to the Middle East and Asia. Time equals money in the airline world, so the larger the no-fly zone, the more you'll pay.

As soon as the bullets and missiles began to fly, cruise lines began altering itineraries and dropping visits to Russian ports of call such as St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, as part of Britain's sanctions against Putin, Prime Minister Johnson barred Russian carriers from British airports. Other nations may follow Johnson's lead. And who's going to want to do business--or take a vacation--in Moscow this year, even if you can get there? Rick Steves today cancelled his entire 2022 slate of Russian tours. Sports fans surely won't be visiting Russia this year, either. By the time you read this, UEFA almost surely will have moved May's Champions League championship soccer match out of St. Petersburg. The Russian Grand Prix is scheduled for September, but that Formula 1 race is probably toast, too. It'll be cancelled or moved.

The less-than-Titanic sanctions imposed on Russia by Western nations will almost surely rachet up in the days ahead. Putin may respond by using a sanction in his arsenal: He could bar flyovers of Russian airspace even though they earn hundreds of millions of dollars of fees annually. In fact, immediately after Johnson barred Russian carriers from Britain yesterday, Putin told British carriers they couldn't fly over Russia airspace en route to other destinations.

If Russia bars Western nations from flying over its territory, travel between the United States and Asia could be seriously disrupted. Flights to Asia probably would have to be routed over the Pacific Ocean, a particularly time-consuming option. From East Coast and Midwest gateways, that could also mean a refueling stop at Anchorage, an odd blast from the past. Failing that, Eastern and Midwestern travelers would have to connect in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Vancouver, once again adding time and cost to itineraries.

Today was tough. We watched Russian troops and ordnance roll through Ukraine with little resistance. Despite all the warnings, Ukrainians seemed genuinely shocked that their "brothers" in Russia would invade. If the Russians "win" the war quickly, there'll be a brutal armed resistance. If the Russians don't win quickly, there will be pitched battles between outgunned Ukraine forces and Putin's troops. Either way, we'll see it all on TV--and that won't encourage people to travel.