Tue 27 Jun 2017 – Following a slowdown in the overall fuel efficiency of its fleet in 2015, Virgin Atlantic Airways has rebounded with an impressive 8% annual improvement last year, according to the airline’s latest Sustainability Report 2017. This is largely down to the positive impact of Boeing 787 aircraft entering the fleet in 2016, improved passenger load factors and other operational gains. Total CO2e aircraft emissions fell from 4.43 million tonnes in 2015 to 4.08 million tonnes in 2016, from a high of 5.22 million tonnes in 2007 when Virgin Atlantic set a target to reduce CO2 emissions by 30% per revenue tonne-kilometre (RTK) by 2020. The 22% reduction since 2007 is matched by a 17% fall in CO2 per RTK and a 22%drop in CO2 per passenger km over the past 10 years. This, says the airline, puts it well ahead of the industry’s annual fuel efficiency improvement target for the period up to 2020.
Replacing the four-engined Airbus A340-600 aircraft with new twin-engined Boeing 787s has been transforming the fleet’s efficiency, says the new report. Four more 787s are expected to join the fleet by the end of 2018 and an order for 12 Airbus A350s, which are due to enter service between 2019 and 2021, “will complete the fleet transformation and offer significant carbon savings, as well as an unrivalled experience for our customers,” said CEO Craig Kreeger.
The airline is expecting the new aircraft to deliver fuel savings of 30% over their predecessors and by 2021 Virgin Atlantic claims the fleet will be one of the youngest for a long-haul operator. It is therefore expecting further improvements in its fuel efficiency metrics although, points out Claire Lambert, Fuel Efficiency Programme Manager: “We may not always see the same magnitude of savings in future years. Like most airlines, the factors underlying our carbon footprint are complex, but key to our recent success has been our ongoing fleet renewal programme, with the last of our Heathrow 747s leaving service in 2015 and more of our 787s coming online.”
At the end of 2016, the Virgin Atlantic fleet comprised 39 aircraft, which were 6.9 years old on average and over two years younger than in 2014. Boeing 787-9 aircraft now make up a third of the fleet, with old A340-600 and Boeing 747-400 aircraft accounting for 40% of the total, the remainder being A330-300s. The airline expects to have a full twin-engined fleet by the end of 2021.
The target is to reduce CO2 per RTK from 0.869kg in the 2007 base year to 0.608kg by 2020. In 2016 the metric stood at 0.724kg (-17% on the base year) and the CO2 per passenger km at 76.9g (-22% on the base year).
The sharp 8% fall in emissions in 2016, mirrored by similar improvements in the two metrics, have also been helped by passenger load factors rising to 78.7% in 2016, following a fall to 76.8% in 2015 from the previous year as a result of increased capacity that year. Route and fleet deployment changes also hindered progress on fuel efficiency in 2015.
Apart from fleet renewal, Virgin Atlantic embarked on a number of fuel-saving initiatives in 2016, including updating pilots’ guidance manuals across the Airbus fleet to enable the use of just one or two engines, depending on the aircraft, when taxiing to the runway. Pilots have also been given access to updated and customised wind and temperature information so they can better optimise their flight. Virgin Atlantic also published a report in 2016 following a successful study to better communicate standard fuel efficiency information to pilots that resulted in savings of 6,828 tonnes of fuel and 21,507 tonnes of CO2 over eight months (see article).
Long-haul travel will require drop-in liquid fuels for the foreseeable future and finding sustainable alternatives to kerosene is crucial to reducing emissions, says the airline’s 2017 sustainability report, which details progress of its venture with alcohol-to-jet fuel developer LanzaTech that started in 2011. The technology involves converting waste carbon monoxide gas from heavy industrial sites like steel mills into ethanol before further conversion into jet fuel. Aided by Virgin Atlantic, LanzaTech is going through the rigorous process of getting the fuel pathway certified for commercial aviation use by an ASTM committee of industry technical experts.
For fuel testing purposes, last year the company produced the first-ever batch – 1,500 US gallons – of LanzaJet fuel made from waste steel mill gas derived ethanol, as well as a further 2,500 gallons of jet fuel from other ethanol sources. The LanzaJet fuel is claimed to have up to 75% lower CO2 emissions than conventional kerosene. Late last year, the cleantech company was awarded a grant by the US Department of Energy to design a 3-4 million gallon-per-year pre-commercial jet fuel facility in the US, and has also secured funding for commercial ethanol plants in China, Taiwan and Belgium.
Although the ASTM qualification process has been long, LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren says it is going to plan and the company is now awaiting feedback from the latest ASTM Committee meeting held this month. “We hope to know shortly what their expectations are of us, what else they require and to define the next steps,” Holmgren told GreenAir. The Committee next meets in December. Once the fuel pathway receives the green light, Virgin Atlantic is hoping to conduct a proving flight using a blend of the fuel.
The sustainability report also highlights efforts to deal with aircraft cabin and catering waste, and high value recyclables; sustainability standards for inflight food; and progress against its aircraft noise target.
“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,” commented Kreeger.
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