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Branson Outlines Plans to Cut Carbon Emissions from Aviation by Up to 25%; Calls for Global Air Industry Effort

The Chairman of Virgin Atlantic, Sir Richard Branson, today 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 $3 billion in renewable energy initiatives over the next ten years. (Earlier post.)

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.

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]

—Sir Richard Branson

As a first step towards sustainable aviation, Virgin Atlantic today set out plan for more efficient aircraft ground 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.

The core of the current plan 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. 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 more than 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.

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-fiber, and it is now using cargo bins made from lighter, but stronger carbon-fiber 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 called for plans for a single European sky (from a air traffic control frame of reference), which would optimize 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.

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.

—Sir Richard Branson

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.

—Steve Ridgway, Chief Executive of Virgin Atlantic



If that's possible just by changing operating procedures, it raises the question of what can be done by improving aircraft themselves.

The Boeing 787 (Dreamliner) is going to be a largely-composite plane which uses 30% less fuel per seat than anything else in its size range.  Even so, it's still a wings-on-tube design; flying wings can do much better.


Also, by inference, if the world's aviation fleet only produces 2% of CO2 emissions then it only consumes 2% of the worlds fossil fuel production.

In that case, aviation contributes a hugh amount of work for the overall input and should be on the list of activities to be retained in a low carbon world.

After all, I can give up my car and cycle places, but I cannot strap wings to my back and fly across the globe to travel, nor can I fly home to see my family.

Seems that with only 2% CO2 emitted aviation is a good return on fossil fuel consumed.


Hydrogen Fan

My question is whether or not Sir Richard has taken into account the possibility of employing liquid hydrogen as the fuel for the second century of flight. Several attempts including a Russian Tupolev around 1988 and a joint enterprise between Boeing and Airbus dubbed the 'cryoplane' have return positive results for the technology. I don't underestimate the engineering challenges that face making current tubular aircraft compatible with Liquid H2 (4x volume for equivalent in kerosene based jet-fuel + low temp for liquid form) but if someone solves these challenges the jets of today will evolve rapidly into pollutionless mass transport vehicles that everyone can enjoy!!


Better to use biodiesel as a more or less direct replacement for kerosene. Positive tests have already been performed on this fuel.

Just be sure to make it from algae (5,000 gallons/acre/year) and not a low yield crop like soya (80 gallons/acre/year).

fyi CO2

Also should consider contrails and the possible heat-trapping cirrus cloud formation when flying at 20k foot altitude


A study conducted during the hiatus on flights just after 9/11 showed a difference of several degrees during the night and day over the US without airplanes adding "artificial clouds" from their contrails. (couple degrees warmer during the day and a couple degrees cooler at night).

Sid Hoffman

Contrary to the implication above, biodiesel has never been used in a jet aircraft. Fuel is stored in the wings which are not insulated. Temperatures can reach -45F at cruise altitude. Biodiesel gels at +30F. I think what you meant was GTL fuel which is comparable to kerosene/JP8, but still made from natural gas, and thus a fossil fuel.

Rafael Seidl

The purely operational ideas proposed by Virgin Atlantic are the proverbial low-hanging fruit wrt reducing CO2 emissions by the aviation business. One obvious addition: get much stricter about boarding the plane row-by-row by establishing a sorted queue even before boarding begins. To keep things briskly moving along once it does, passengers should be asked to separate the items they wish to stow from those they wish to keep at their seat prior to presenting their boarding pass. Flight attendants should insist on stowing items for passengers that are slowing down the process. In some cases, row-by-row boarding would mean business class travelers boarding not first but last - oh, horrors! Anyone who misses their call to board should be made to wait until the end and run the risk of having to check their carry-on luggage.

The upside of all this Prussian discipline: the turnaround time is a few minutes shorter, so the cruising speed can be a little lower without impacting the total duration of the trip. Since wind resistance is proportional to airspeed squared, this is more significant than it might appear. I expect passengers would be willing to make the small sacrifice of falling in line for the sake of the environment. Bonus: a reduced risk of missing take-off slots, which leads to delays, missed connections, lost baggage and higher airfares.

Andy -

even if the airline industry is only responsible for a small fraction of total GHG emissions, it is important that it pulls its weight. If nothing else, it will help sensitize consumers (= voters) to the need to urgently take corrective action on all fronts. The inherent commercial risk, of course, is that they will simply decide that they need to cut down on flying period.

Hydrogen Fan -

hydrogen is not free of pollution, especially if burnt in ICEs: NOx is a pollutant. There is a better argument for switching to H2: the gravimetric energy density is very high.

Liquid hydrogen currently offers the highest available volumetric energy density for H2; airlines and airports could cope with issues related to safety and boil-off much more easily than the automotive industry.

However, LH2 is costly to produce in both dollar and environmental terms. Only a well-to-thrust comparison of the alternatives can reveal if it is a better choice than traditional and biofuel alternatives. If so, preliminary studies have already shown that the need to insulate the cryotank would preclude the use of in-wing tanks.

Ultimately, this ought to prompt a rethink of the whole tube-and-wings airframe concept, e.g. by switching to a BWB design with a large spherical fuel tank featuring internal subdivisions located above the nosewheel. BWB designs (cp. B2 bomber) feature high aerodynamic efficiency but difficulties related to lower top speed, maintaining cabin pressure, perfectly level flight and adequate natural lighting have prevented civilian applications to date.

In any but the largest LH2-powered BWB aircraft, the cockpit would therefore be separated from the passenger and/or cargo compartments, except for an emergency crawl space in the wing. Normally, pilots would enter and exit the aircraft via a dedicated access hatch.


Rafael, extensive studies and modeling software show that row by row seating is not the fastest nor most efficient. It falls somewhere just above the "free for all" that southwest uses.

I'm not sure how extensively you have travelled on airplanes in the US but you have many people who refuse to follow the proper que and carry on requirements (atleast 2 passengers on every one of the 20 flights I have taken in the last year on jet airplanes had to have their carry-on checked in due to the oversize nature). They only carefully check tickets if you try to "sneak" on during first class/business boarding. I can't tell you the number of times I have seen people boarding with the first "zone" when they were in an aisle or middle seat and they should have been boarding with the second or third "zones". That's okay, I'm a big guy and I enjoy shoving them out of the way to get to my seat because they can't follow the rules [I'm expecting freedom fighters input on these orderly rules at any time now].


At the cruise speed of typical jets you could use a rotating wing configuration. Standard setting for maximum lift at takeoff and then rotate the wing 45% to reduce air resistance at speed. This option is very expensive to implement safely though and so far only test vehicles from Lockheed Martin's "Skunkworks" (or was it Boeing's "Phantomworks"?) have been flying with this concept.

allen Z

On top of being expensive, as you have stated, such designs are of high mass and internal mechanical/structural element volume utilization, both big negatives for aircraft design.

Rafael Seidl,
Perhaps box wing designs are viable alternatives. They combine the stable mature rear swept wing + tube body design with efficient forward swept wings.
Search "box wing":

Sid Hoffman,
There are two methods, out of many, to make biofuels work in big jets.
_One is to use draw bleed air from turbine blades without vents, that that normally bleed the hot air from turbine blades, into the scorching gases of the turbine (to keep them from melting in the hellish conditions). The hot gases piped to the tanks keep the fuel in the tanks at 50-90F, 10-32C, and liquid. It is similar to what GE did with gas turbines in their combined cycle gas + steam turbine system. The difference is GE used steam in a closed system to make electrical power, while this would use air in an open system (to keep down costs and weight), and to keep fuel available. Heat transferred, via conduction through metal surfaces, from the hot gas to the fuel. The system would work as needed, to keep the fuel flowing through the lines, and to the engines. Another point is that flying at 500-600 mph produces substantial frictional heating, enough to assist fuel from gelling/freezing.
_Another approach would be to utilize BTL fuels with low/very low gel/cloud/freeze points. The one from Neste Oil looks promising, with cloud points similar to GTL fuels. Their NEx_BTL has better volumetric and mass energy density vs. biodiesel. On top of that, benefits such as to particulate matter, CO, VOC, and NOX reductions may be a further benefit. One study required is to what extent it would reduce such pollutants in turbines (turboprops, turbofans, turbojets, fanjets, etc), but it may be another manner to diminish GHGs (NOX, CO) and aerosols (which help form contrails). The only snag is that the cetane number is 84-99, higher than sulfur free diesel (53), or JP8 (~45), more auto ignitable, and is thus more combustible/hazardous. Lower cetane BTL fuels may be less hazardous, but may be more polluting. Additives may change that, and as engines become more efficient and cleaner, it might matter less.


Biodiesel is LESS hazardous than jet fuel; it may have a higher cetane number, but it also has a higher flash point.  If the flash point is upwards of 300° F, the risk of ignition from e.g. spills is almost nil.


Winterised soybean biodiesel has been shown to remain liquid at temperatures as low as -52oF (-47oC). Works in jet engines too.

Just using unsaturated and shorter acyl chains would also give low temperature biofuels (ie use arctic algae or their lipid biosynthesis enzymes cloned into a faster grower).

allen Z

"Biodiesel is LESS hazardous than jet fuel"
Yes, however, I was not referring to Biodiesel. I was instead talking about properties regarding NEx_BTL fuel.
Interesting, low temp algae would make algae production above the Arctic circle during the summer possible. Another possible aspect would be to use them at temperate facilities, during winter production.

Gar Lipow

One thing that is important to remember. Airplanes contribute much more to global warming than their fuel consumption suggests.

Airplanes release water vapor in the lower stratosphere. water vapor is normally a feedback, not a forcing. But water released in the stratosphere is a forcing. So airlines are responsible for many times the global warming there energy consumption might suggest.

Recent studies suggest that airplanes flown at night contribute much more to warming that airplanes flown in day. Simlarly airplanes flow in th winter are much worse than in the summer. [Sorry not a climate scientist - so I don't understand why.]

So along with the energy savings means mentioned, we either need to limit night and winter flights or find a way to reduce water vapor emissions from airlines. Note that switching to hydrogen does nothing about water vapor emission. In fact, I can't think of offhand of a technology that would reduce such emissions in airplanes.

Note again this is a problem only in the air, not on the ground. Water vapor emitted on the ground precipitates back pretty quickly.

Richard Bennett

As an avid adventurer, perhaps Sir Richard Branson should think about competing for the Green Riband ( - awarded for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe using zero emission transportation. Fuel cells, bio fuels, wind, solar etc. Richard Bennett (Coms)


what are your credible sources for your information, I haven't seen a single reference to where you obtained your info. from.


why does it block my posts and say the wrong date and year

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