Could you share with us who Virgin Atlantic is and what its current footprint is?
Virgin Atlantic was founded 39 years ago by sir Richard Branson and it is currently run by the Virgin Group and Delta Airlines in the USA. We are based in the UK but operate transatlantically and beyond. We are a long-haul only airline. Our mission is to become the most loved and sustainably profitable travel company in the world.
If you compare where we are now to where we were before the Covid-19 crisis, you see many improvements. Among other things, last year we returned to some of our key markets, such as Capetown, and announced the launching of five new routes. We have structurally transformed our cost-base by taking out $300 million pounds of recurring cost-savings during the response to the crisis, and optimized our network—which is now 20% more efficient than it was pre-Covid. We have therefore set ourselves very nicely to effectively become the most-loved travel company, which we do in two ways. One is through our people, since they are the core of what we do and our key differentiator; secondly, we are continuously thinking how to elevate what we offer to our consumers across every point of the journey. Finally, Virgin Atlantic sees itself as a premium airline, meaning that we are sustainable and conceive of business as a force for good.
What are the main directions you are pursuing to achieve your goal of net-zero emissions for 2050?
By 2026 we will achieve a 15% gross reduction in our CO2 emissions; by 2030 we aim at a 15% net reduction in our total emissions, and by 2040, our goal is a 40% net reduction. These are the incremental steps ensuring that we are transparent and holding ourselves to account.
In-sector reductions boil down to the plane you fly and the fuel you burn.
Our fleet is one of the most efficient across the transatlantic: we are a 41 aircraft fleet, all twin engine, approximating 80% next-generation engines (the most efficient available). By 2027, when we complete our current fleet transformation, we will have 100% next-generation engines.
Accordingly, over the last decade, we have reduced our carbon footprint by 35%. This means that, on average, flying with Virgin Atlantic is 13% more efficient than with its competitors, without price premium nor carbon levy.
How is the progress looking like on your announced milestone to fly the first 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) flight across the Atlantic?
We put together a consortium, including Rolls-Royce, Boeing, ICF, Imperial College London, Rocky Mountain Institute, and other partners, as a response to a DfT program asking different players across the sector to bid to operate such a flight. Virgin Atlantic was the winning airline last year, together with its consortium partners. We have been running hard for eight or nine months now, and are starting to see the results of some of the milestones we mapped out. Our plan is to operate the flight, which is an R&D (non-commercial) flight, on November 28, 2023.
The first milestone was the fuel-property testing to evaluate the particular blend of fuel we are proposing to fly—a mix of HEFA and SAK. We then had the engine benchtest to determine if the fuel works in the engine at speed, which was completed by Rolls-Royce a few weeks ago. Now we are looking at the airframe certification, the Virgin Atlantic safety case and the regulatory safety approval, which we expect to see by the end of September.
What will change in the aviation sector if this historic flight takes place?
Virgin Atlantic decided to operate this flight to demonstrate two things. First, the need for radical collaboration. When it comes to the challenge of decarbonization, there is no single entity: it requires a coalition of the willing to start to move the dial. Second, we wish to show that existing engines, field infrastructure, and airframes can operate at 100% SAF safely today. This entails that the biggest challenge in the decade ahead does not concern operationalization, but simply unlocking the commercialization and production at sufficient scale in order to get enough SAF into the system to make a meaningful impact within the 2050 time-horizon.
In the UK there is the debate about whether the answer to decarbonization is SAF or hydrogen. Increasingly the consensus view across nearly every roadmap out there is that SAF has the majority role to play, but it must address more than 40% of the emissions to reach net-zero. Our current fleets are simply not prepared for hydrogen propulsion.
What other challenges do you face in your sector?
Given that decarbonization is our most fundamental challenge, the questions now are, how do we better engage our customers in this transition? What do they expect to see? What drives their choices? These issues need to be addressed to be able to talk to our customers in a way that gives them an opportunity to partake in making an effective difference.
Some of our customers clearly show appetite and willingness to action, and not merely from a cost-efficiency perspective, but genuinely from a carbon-impact perspective. We see this attitudinal change in the shift in purchase choices. Broader consumer sentiment shows some difficulties, although there is absolutely an emerging narrative and consciousness that flying has a carbon impact. We need to do a better job at quantifying this reality and making it more digestible for consumers.
What are your objectives for the near future?
We aim to support governments, including the UK and the USA, to reach a holistic policy framework that incentivizes the necessary private investment for the transition to take place. Another step to take is to zoom in the sustainability lens into every point of the journey we offer.
Decarbonization in aviation is hard, but that cannot be an excuse for inaction. We have the technologies and will demonstrate this year that we can use SAF in almost every part of our current infrastructure that is 70% better than using fossil jet. Commercialization is the challenge across the board. Mine is a call for action across the value-chain—government, producers, customers—to participate in the collaboration.
- Share on: