Since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, the aviation industry has been under immense pressure – faced both with a significant reduction in capacity and a recovery that is expected to take up to three years.
It’s clear air travel will be a vital enabler of the UK’s economic recovery as the crisis subsides and airlines gradually return to the skies. Our challenge as an industry is to ensure this recovery is done in the most sustainable way possible.
The government’s recent announcement on the establishment of a “Jet Zero Council” for aviation was incredibly welcome and a vital step forwards. At Virgin Atlantic, we have long called for such a move.
I passionately believe climate change and the need for decisive action goes beyond competitor lines. Civil aviation has a long and successful history of working collaboratively to accelerate change and continuously improve, which is one of the reasons the industry leads the way on safety.
This collective appetite for driving change was evident in February 2020, when all major UK airlines, airports and manufacturers signed up to the Sustainable Aviation Net Zero 2050 Roadmap. It was a significant moment, demonstrating how aviation can meet the government’s Net Zero 2050 goal.
Key to forcing real change is to make improvements where they have the biggest impact. Namely, investing in the most fuel-efficient fleet, developing and utilising sustainable aviation fuel and carbon offsetting. At Virgin Atlantic we’ve seen a 20% reduction in aircraft carbon emissions since 2007, thanks to fleet renewal and operational improvements alone.
The next step change will come from sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). We were the first airline to fly using SAF in 2008. Since then we launched a partnership with fuel tech company LanzaTech, which recycles carbon-rich waste gases (from sources such as steel mills) to produce fuel with a 70% lower carbon life cycle than traditional jet fuel.
We flew our first commercial flight with LanzaTech fuel in 2018 and we continue to partner with them as they scale up their technology. In the interim, while SAF continues to move towards commercial scale, carbon offsetting will play a key role in reducing emissions.
This year marks the beginning of the UN-led Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which will see all international flights cap emissions at 2019 levels.
In the meantime, the government’s grant to the Velocys sustainable fuel site is a positive development. Building a dynamic, diverse sustainable fuel industry will require further public investment alongside industry commitments.
But with this support, the UK has the opportunity to become a world leader in the sustainable aviation fuel industry, creating much-needed jobs and GDP through export to other countries.
Our partner, LanzaTech, is currently working on a demonstration plant in the US that will produce millions of gallons of SAF per year. With the right economic conditions, a full-scale commercial plant in the UK is within reach in the next five years. Through co-investment or SAF offset programmes, companies can have clear accountability and control of their travel carbon footprint.
With plans to relaunch Virgin Atlantic passenger flights from 20 July, we’re taking this time to ensure we reset and recalibrate, enabling us to rebuild our network and operation in an even more sustainable way. It’s on all of us in the industry to make the most of this once- in-a-generation opportunity.
Juha Jarvinen is chief commercial officer at Virgin Atlantic.