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Virgin Atlantic: Saving energy in the air

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British Gas, part of Centrica (Direct Energy's parent company), interviewed Jill Brady from Virgin Atlantic about what they’re doing to reduce their carbon impact. This article was originally posted on British Gas' blog here.

Fuel efficient technology is big news for commercial airlines. We know we have a large carbon footprint, and we’re working hard to reduce it. We’re determined to continue working with the commercial aviation industry as a pioneer of sustainable aviation.

Virgin Atlantic is looking to use a sustainable next generation aviation fuel which could have up to half the carbon emissions of the standard fossil fuel alternative.

Fuel and carbon efficiency

More than 99% of our direct carbon emissions come from our aircraft fuel burn. We’re already seeing real, measurable savings from our 10 new Airbus A330s, which are around 30% more efficient than the Airbus A340-600s they replaced. In October this year, we’ll see the first of 16 new Boeing 787-9 aircraft coming into our operations, which will be around 21% more efficient per trip than the aircraft they will replace.

We operate a number of Airbus and Boeing Aircraft. On a typical Heathrow to New York (JFK) flight, the fuel used for the outbound flight would be as follows:

• Boeing 747-400: about 89,000 litres. The Boeing 747-400 burns about 9.1 tonnes of jet fuel per hour or 1 gallon per second.
• Airbus A340-600: about 78,500 litres. The aircraft’s powered by four British built Rolls Royce Trent 500 engines, each delivering 56,000 lb of thrust
• Airbus A340-330: about 60,000 litres. This is the first aircraft to be built by Airbus with four engines
• Airbus A330: about 54,600 litres. This is currently the most efficient wide body Airbus aircraft and it’s our first twin engined aircraft.

Operation and maintenance improvements

We have a team responsible for finding ways to reduce fuel usage by 1-1.5% every year. So far, we’ve reduced our consumption of business energy by working with others in the aviation industry to alter airport and flight operations including reducing time spent circling airports in holding patterns.

We’re also working with pilots on the best ways to save energy, such as taxiing on one engine, and we’ve even reduced the thickness of the glass used for wine bottles in order to save on weight and use less fuel!

New fuels

The aviation industry currently has limited alternatives to oil-based jet fuel, so we’re very excited to have partnered with clean technology pioneer, LanzaTech to provide a sustainable, commercial solution. LanzaTech’s approach is to produce low-carbon fuels by recycling waste gases from steel mills to produce ethanol, which can be converted into jet fuel. LanzaTech estimates that its method can be retrofitted onto 65% of the world’s steel mills, so the process can be rolled out on a worldwide scale.

And this isn’t the first time we’ve tested a biofuel. In 2008, a Boeing 747 flew from London to Amsterdam using a fuel based on coconut oil. While we knew the fuel would never be commercially viable we wanted to demonstrate what was possible when it was broadly considered that biofuels would never work for aviation!

Virgin Atlantic is planning a demo flight with the new fuel in the next two years. This would facilitate certification of the fuel and bring it a step closer to commercialisation. Just one of the things we are doing to become 30% more efficient by 2020.

About the Author: Jill Brady is the Director of People and External Affairs at Virgin Atlantic. Jill set up Virgin Atlantic’s Sustainability Team in November 2006, which aims to encourage the airline to become a more responsible and sustainable business. Jill first joined Virgin Atlantic in 1994. Prior to this, Jill worked for leading London law firm, Lovell White Durrant, as a Legal Adviser and then as General Manager of the Legal Department. 

Posted: July 08, 2014