Virgin Atlantic on course to cut emissions by 30% by 2020. But how will it do it?

Aviation gets a lot of negative attention in the fight against global warming. But Virgin Atlantic should be applauded for its efforts in driving carbon out of the skies, writes Mike Scott.

Airlines are obsessed with saving fuel because it makes up such a big proportion of their costs (around a third, according to the International Air Transport Association) – and it is a cost that is not under their control but governed by the global oil price. The global airline industry’s fuel bill is forecast to total $207bn in 2012, IATA says – $31bn more than in 2011.

By happy coincidence, cutting their fuel consumption also allows them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, a factor which is becoming increasingly important to the industry as plans gather pace for a global scheme to cut emissions.

Almost all of the environmental impact of airlines (more than 99%) comes from burning fuel so it is little surprise that Virgin Atlantic has introduced a new initiative that should cut its emissions by 100,000 tonnes a year and save it almost £20 million in fuel costs.

By using fuel efficiency software from Rolls Royce subsidiary OSyS, the airline will be able to identify areas throughout its operations where fuel can be used more efficiently. The software pin points accurately where fuel can be used more efficiently, monitoring 300 different points during each flight and enabling the airline to reduce fuel burn significantly.

“The software measures about 300 different data points so we can really pinpoint in the most minute detail where savings can be made,” says Madeleine Cobb, sustainability executive at the airline.

Tracking behaviour

Virgin will now be able to monitor and improve its fuel efficiency by focusing on areas such as how arrival delays and holding patterns at destination increases fuel burn, how pilot technique, flight plans and maintenance activities can improve fuel efficiency and how airline activity on the ground impacts fuel burn.

The software will help the airline to meet its target to cut emissions per revenue tonne kilometer– a standard industry metric – by 30% from 2007 levels by 2020, but it still has a long way to go – the 100,000 tonne reduction is from a total in 2011 of 4.6 million tonnes. It is just one of a raft of measures it has introduced.

Virgin Atlantic
Aviation companies will spend $31bn more this year, compared to last, on their fuel bills thanks to soaring costs

One of the biggest impacts will come from simply renewing its fleet – in 2011 it started taking delivery of a number of Airbus A-330 aircraft, which are about 15% more efficient on a per-seat basis than the planes they replace, while from 2014, it will start to integrate new Boeing 787 Dreamliners into the fleet, which are 27% more efficient on a per-seat basis than their predecessors. “New generation fuel-efficient aircraft are pushing the 100g CO2/passenger km barrier, comparable to the emissions of a single-occupancy city car,” Virgin says.

Another initiative that should make a big difference to Virgin’s emissions is its partnership with New Zealand company LanzaTech to develop a fuel with half the carbon footprint of standard jet fuel. Unlike other aviation fuel efforts, which are focusing on biofuels, the LanzaTech collaboration captures waste gases from industrial steel production. These gases, which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, are fermented and chemically converted into jet fuel using a process developed by a company called Swedish Biofuels.

Virgin hopes the first commercial operation for the fuel will be in place in China by 2014 and LanzaTech estimates that its process can apply to 65 % of the world’s steel mills as well as other industrial processes, allowing the fuel to be rolled out around the world.

Scalable technology

Virgin president Richard Branson says that the steel industry alone will be able to deliver more than 15 billion gallons of jet fuel a year. “This new technology is scalable, sustainable and can be commercially produced at a cost comparable to conventional jet fuel,” he adds.

As well as reducing emissions, the new fuel will avoid deforestation and will not compete with food crops for land and water, Virgin says.

Fuel is such an overriding concern that Virgin’s efforts to reduce consumption (and those of other airlines) do not stop there but extend to every aspect of the company’s operations. This includes joining industry initiatives to improve air traffic management and cleaning initiatives such as cleaning the leading edge of aircraft wings to reduce drag and pressure washing engines to ensure they run as efficiently as possible.

The company is also examining ways to reduce the weight of its aircraft and their contents, says Cobb. “For example, when we recently fitted the interiors of the first of our new A330s, the lighter airframe, monuments, seats and galleys allowed us to deliver an overall weight saving of 1.3 tonnes per aircraft.”

Other measures include using plastic wine bottles instead of glass, and reducing the amount of potable water aircraft carry by 25% without, it says, compromising on passenger comfort or safety.

“It’s a win-win for us and the environment as using fewer materials means less weight, less fuel burned, and less CO2 emitted,” Cobb adds.