Virgin Atlantic cuts aircraft emissions by 22% in 10 years

A multi-billion-dollar Boeing fleet investment, engine taxiing and weight management have together contributed to Virgin Atlantic reducing total aircraft carbon emissions by 22% since 2007, with similar footprint reductions generated for other carbon-efficiency measurements.

The carbon savings, revealed in Virgin Atlantic’s latest sustainability report on Monday (26 June), were accelerated through an 8% reduction in 2016 alone. Virgin Atlantic has claimed that the latest figures have put the airline “well ahead” of the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) industry targets for 2020.

Virgin Atlantic’s chief executive Craig Kreeger said: “2016 was a landmark year for sustainability at Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays, in which we delivered significant carbon savings, drove improvements in sustainable onboard food and drink, and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for our charity partners.

“Despite political and economic headwinds, we remain fully committed to our sustainability programme and will continue to drive new ways to reduce carbon emissions, and promote responsible supply chain and tourism practices.”

The latest sustainability report reveals that CO2 per km travelled by passengers had also been reduced by 22%, while CO2 per revenue tonne km was reduced by 17%.

The reductions were delivered though investments into the Boeing 787 aircraft and from 2019, 12 Airbus models will enter into service that will deliver a 30% carbon saving on each flight.

Virgin Atlantic has also introduced new measures to create a low-carbon fuel, by recycling carbon in waste industrial gases through clean tech firm LanzaTech. Virgin Atlantic has described the alcohol-to-jet fuel as a “gamechanger”, with at least three million gallons set to be generated through the partnership.

According to the airline, these efficiencies go beyond IATA targets for 2020, which include an average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5% up to 2020 and a cap on net aviation emissions from 2020. By 2050, IATA has targeted an industry-wide 50% reduction in net aviation emissions compared to 2005 levels.

Commenting on Virgin Atlantic’s 2017 sustainability report, WWF-UK climate change specialist James Beard said: “It’s good to see this investment in new, more efficient aircraft bearing fruit and delivering significant reductions in CO2. We also welcome the progress on low-carbon fuels made from industrial waste gases, avoiding the risks seen with crop-based fuels.

“We need to see this kind of progress replicated across the airline industry. However, there’s a real risk that these precious carbon savings would be wiped out if UK airport capacity is expanded. The Government must come up with a clear plan for tackling aviation emissions before the parliamentary vote on Heathrow expansion, or else risks falling foul of the law.”

Mile buy club

While aircraft flights account for the largest source of emissions for Virgin Atlantic, the company has introduced other measures to tackle emissions and supply chain inefficiencies.

The company now partners with the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), which has helped to ensure that 5.5m meals served on board flights each year are sustainably sourced, have a reduced deforestation risk and provide fair working conditions for farmers.

Gate Gourmet UK, which serves more than half of all Virgin Atlantic flights, complies fully with all applicable sustainability standards. The airline is now focusing on removing food that contributes to deforestation, such as palm oil and beef. All menus on Caribbean flights save 100 tonnes of palm oil annually by using rapeseed as a substitute.

Since 2008, cabin waste has been reduced by 43%. In 2016, ground waste produced by Virgin Atlantic increased by 4%, however, 68% of waste is recycled and a further 27% is used for energy from waste and 2% is composted. In total, Virgin Atlantic is diverting 96% of waste away from landfill.

Food waste is still proving an issue for airlines, due to stringent rules that prevent recycling for anything that has touched meat or dairy products. However, Virgin Atlantic is targeting high-value recyclables such as amenity kits. More than one million kits were recycled in 2016, with 55% reassembled into new kits.

Elsewhere, sponges from headsets will soon be used for surfaces at an equestrian centre, while disused plastic is made into benches.

Matt Mace

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