Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Hot air powered by biofuels
Watch Richard's interview with Sir Richard Branson.

I am on the road again, this time in Chicago. I flew on the Virgin Atlantic Inaugural flight from LHR to ORD. On inaugural’s we are offered free tickets but CNN has very strict rules on this and at CNN we have a policy of paying our way, so we will be sending Sir Richard a cheque. I need to be able to say what I think, not what they think they have bought!

For instance despite the Virgin hot air, this flight wasn’t strictly speaking an inaugural at all because Virgin ran the route in the 1990s only stopping after the airline crises following 9/11. It was a Return to Service, but only a pedant would point that out.

So, Virgin is running the route in competition against United (who is based in Chicago) American and British Airways. Not that that will worry Richard Branson, he has made a career of going after the legacy carriers so I expect a good down and dirty fight, entirely appropriate to the Windy City with its history of political shenanigans.

Anyway, that’s not what’s on my mind. Today Virgin along with Boeing announced they are beginning experiments with biofuels for aircraft. Biofuels generate far less carbon dioxide emissions and are much better for the environment.

But can it be done? Some fuels like ethanol freeze above 15,000 feet – not a good idea for a jetliner cruising across an ocean. Others simply couldn’t be made in anything like the quantity necessary to fill thirsty plane tanks.

So they are looking at soya and other forms of agricultural products to see if they are more suitable.

Branson has offered to test a blend of these fuels on one of his Boeing 747-400’s. This could be an expensive experiment. The planes cost more than $140m. The engines cost at least $5m each!

Clearly this plane won’t be allowed to fly until they are pretty sure the fuel works and even then there won’t be passengers on board (although, if they are looking for volunteers then I will sign up to be one!) Sir Richard is always being bashed when he makes these environmental announcements. After all he’s the owner of an airline, so isn’t that a bit like Dracular popping into the blood bank to see how things are going? I have a lot of time for his standard response that we still have to travel so we are going to have to find the most effective and environmentally friendly way to do it.

I sympathize. Many of you have taken me to task for all the air travel I do, and the detrimental effect it must have on the environment. I try to be carbon neutral, I have tried offsetting, I take flights when necessary. But at the end of the day, I can’t make a television program about somewhere without actually going there. And if I am going to report on business travel issues that means getting on planes.

Sir Richard and I have had our differences in the past, and I don’t always like the way his airline has so many gimmicks that it forgets the business is getting from A to B. But he is trying to make a difference. Whether it’s starting grids to cut the emissions of taxiing planes, buying more fuel efficient aircraft (not that he had much choice – they are all going that way) donating the profits of the airline to environmental causes or instigating biofuel research, it is a start. And before we start bashing him over the head, let’s ask ourselves what the other carriers are doing?

Okay other carriers – here’s your free shot – respond to this blog or drop us an e-mail about your top five environmental measures you have initiated or taken and will put them up on this blog. Simple. Now over to you.

Are you aware of Brazil's Tecbio company efforts on biokerosene? Expedito Parente has been working on this for all his life, since the military dictatorship days here in Brazil when the military started the alcohool efforts:
While its contributions may only be small, Delta Air Lines recently announced that it will launch a carbon emission offset program this June which will allow customer's to purchase carbon offset credit. The money would go directly to The Conservation Fund.

Now for all those pollutant spewing McDonnell-Douglas MD-88s, I'm not sure how they intend on cleaning those up or replacing them.
Some great ideas in your post.
As an addition, I don't think that airlines should be singled-out, since they cannot do it alone. We should also ask:
1. the airports and air traffic control as to what they are doing, e.g. optimising flight paths and re-designing ATC to reduce planes being held in holding patterns?
2. the regulators, as to what targets, limits, incentives and penalties they are enacting to promote the above,
3. the government (and ourselves) as to what we are doing to make travel more avoidable, and to make avoidable travel unattractive?
British Airways sent us an email telling us what they are doing to reduce their carbon emissions. Here are their top five environmental measures:

1. Becoming the first airline to set a public target for fuel efficiency (a 30 per cent improvement by 2010, compared with 1990) – and saving 60 million tonnes of CO2 in achieving a 27 per cent improvement to date.

2. Becoming the first airline to join a carbon emissions trading scheme (2002) and understanding that carbon trading is the most environmentally effective way for aviation to combat its impacts on climate change.

3. Leading the successful campaign for the EU to include aviation in its carbon trading scheme.

4. Becoming the first airline to introduce a carbon offset scheme for customers.

5. Funding research into alternative aviation fuels (2001) and pioneering operational practices such as continuous descent approaches to reduce fuel burn and emissions.
Great article, with a very important focus. Airline traffic has a very large impact on CO2 levels, and modern society is addicted to air travel so anything that can help in this arena is welcome.

You mentioned that bio fuels release 'far less' carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than traditional fuel. Is it more correct to say that burning the fuel itself releases about as much CO2 as 'normal' fuel? I'm not certain, but the real benefit of bio fuel is that the CO2 it releases was "recently" captured from the atmosphere by plants, as opposed to being sourced from fossils. So at best... burning bio fuels could be carbon neutral, but it would still be pushing as much CO2 as 'regular' fuels (and thereby counteracting the earths tendency to absorb CO2 into plants).

Just a hunch.

I suspect it'd be far better to go back to sailing vessels. Slow, to be sure ;-) but they themselves in fact release 'far less' CO2.

Thanks very much for this blog and it's focus.
Not so long ago, I listened in on a forum held in Waseda University in Tokyo, with a speaker from Virgin discussing their initiatives for reducing CO2 output, among other things.

Interesting though, is the fact that the speaker mentioned (lamented?) the fact that airlines are certainly getting a fair among of attention, given that aviation contributes 2% to total CO2 output. It really ends up pointing at the bigger problem of motor vehicles.

Though as Richard says, when you have to fly, you have to fly, and same goes for cars. It's a difficult dilemma to solve indeed.
Delta Airlines also took up Richard's challenge to tell us what environmental measures they're taking. Here's what they told us:

Delta Air Lines is partnering with The Conservation Fund, a leading environmental non-profit organization, to become the first U.S. airline to help its customers give back to the environment by buying trees to help offset carbon emissions associated with air travel.

Other ongoing programs include:
• Fuel conservation/recycling initiatives such as weight reduction efforts, engine washes, engine refurbishment, the institution of continuous descent approaches and industry leadership in single engine taxis with more than 25 million gallons of fuel saved in 2006 alone.

• A water consumption reduction system designed to reduce water consumption by 50 percent at the airline's Technical Operations Center (TOC). For its efforts to date, Delta received The Fox McCarthy Water Wise Award and recognition from the Georgia Association of Water Professionals.

• The incorporation of over 600 electric vehicles and other types of electric ground support equipment into the airline's fleet - all with zero emissions. Significant reductions in emissions have been achieved by converting internal combustion engines to zero emission electric units.

• Promoting a next generation Air Traffic Control (ATC) system - both in Europe and in the United States - that affords more direct aircraft routing and subsequently results in the reduction of carbon emissions associated with air travel.
I saw on that space travel is within grasp, does anyone have more information on this company doing so or know anymore information about this? They say that they are have an event open to the public but I want to hear more about them before I book my trip for my wife and I. Late Christmas shopping, but it sounds interesting to me. Thanks
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