Branson targets climate change

27th Sep 2006

The Chairman of Virgin Atlantic, Sir Richard Branson, has called on the global aviation industry to develop a shared solution to the growing issue of climate change. The move follows Virgin Group’s plans to invest $3billion in renewable energy initiatives over the next ten years.

Speaking in New York, Sir Richard revealed that he has written to other airlines, including British Airways, American Airlines and Easyjet; engine and aircraft manufacturers such as Rolls Royce and Boeing; and airport operators including BAA in the UK, urging them to support a new cross-industry forum which will help to deliver practical ways of tackling climate change.

In his letter to aviation industry leaders, Sir Richard writes, “We need to accelerate the pace at which we reduce aviation’s impact on the environment. We cannot ignore that aviation does create environmental problems (around 2% of global CO2 emissions), although equally it produces significant economic and social benefits. (8% of the world’s GDP)”

As a first step towards sustainable aviation, Virgin Atlantic today set out its global vision for radically more efficient aircraft movements around the world’s busiest airports. These changes would mean that aircraft would burn considerably less fuel and emit much lower levels of CO2, dramatically improving air quality on the ground and in the air.

At the heart of its vision is the creation of “starting grids” for all aircraft departures.  A starting grid is a holding area, close to the runway, consisting of several parking bays for aircraft. It means that aircraft can be towed closer to a runway before take-off, substantially reducing the time that engines need to be running.


After being towed by a small tug from its stand, an aircraft would only start its engines once on the “starting grid”, around 10 minutes before actual take-off. This would substantially reduce the amount of time aircraft need to taxi with their engines running and the time spent queuing before take off.  A “starting grid” also reduces congestion around stands, meaning aircraft that have recently landed wouldn’t have to wait, with their engines running, to get onto the stand. Aircraft arriving could also turn off their engines after five minutes and be towed to their stand, saving considerable extra CO2. 

The “starting grid” system would make airport movements much more efficient and would reduce fuel consumption and on-the-ground carbon emissions by over 50% ahead of take-off at London’s Heathrow airport for Virgin Atlantic aircraft, and by nearly 90% for Virgin Atlantic flights at JFK Airport in New York. It would also mean that an aircraft flying from JFK to Heathrow could carry around two tonnes less weight in the air, which would mean that the amount of fuel burnt would be considerably less, reducing CO2 emissions even further.

Towing aircraft closer to the runway has substantial implications for local communities too. They would benefit from much lower noise levels because of aircraft taxi-ing without their engines running, and from dramatically cleaner air on the ground.

Virgin Atlantic pilots are also trained in a method of descent called “Continuous Descent Approach.” This involves aircraft beginning their descent from high altitude much earlier, leading to a slower and smoother approach before landing. This earlier descent means that aircraft descend at a more efficient speed, therefore reducing fuel burn. Virgin Atlantic believes that all air traffic control authorities should adopt this approach, saving considerable CO2 emissions.

As part of its sustainable aviation strategy, Virgin Atlantic is also reducing the weight of each of its aircraft. It is painting the exterior of its planes with lighter paint, creating lighter fittings onboard, changing oxygen bottles from metal to carbon-fibre, and it is now using cargo bins made from lighter, but stronger carbon-fibre materials, rather than metal. The airline is even seeking to remove empty champagne and beer bottles, the contents of which have been drunk before leaving the stand, so they can be recycled before the plane leaves for its destination. These measures save fuel and reduce CO2 emissions further.

Sir Richard also said the “mess of European air traffic control is punishing the environment, with 35 different air traffic control organizations, compared with just one in America.” He called for plans for a single European sky, which would optimise air routings by aircraft and improve environmental performance further. IATA, the International Air Transport Association, predicts that 12% of global CO2 emissions by aircraft would be saved if air traffic control systems were more efficient.

Sir Richard added:

“What we’re suggesting would save over 150 million tonnes of carbon emissions a year. With global warming, the world is heading for a catastrophe. The aviation industry must play its part in averting that. Airlines, airports, air traffic controllers and governments should seize these initiatives and ensure they’re all implemented within two years. If they do so, up to 25% of the world’s aviation emissions can be cut. The savings in fuel costs can then be ploughed back into further initiatives to reduce fuel burn and carbon emissions, and into savings for passengers.”

The initiatives, which have been developed over the last year, follow a recent climate seminar in California chaired by the state Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in which senior business leaders, including Sir Richard Branson, promised to help cut global emissions.

Commenting on the Virgin Atlantic initiatives, Governor Schwarzenegger, said:

“I applaud the creative example Virgin Atlantic has set in moving towards towing planes from push-back to the end of the runway. This is a perfect example of the kind of practical solution we need to be pursuing globally.”

Steve Ridgway, Chief Executive of Virgin Atlantic, added:

“Although Virgin Atlantic supports an emissions trading scheme, climate change will only be tackled markedly by a reduction in carbon emissions themselves. As an airline, we have a duty to continue to reduce our environmental footprint and that is what we are encouraging our pilots, our engineering staff and all of our people to do. We will be announcing further measures in the next few months to demonstrate how Virgin Atlantic is taking the industry lead on the issue of sustainability.”


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