How low can we go? – our 2017 Sustainability Report

By: Dave Gunner

June 26, 2017

Change is in the air banner

Change is in the air banner

Virgin Atlantic Airways (our airline) and Virgin Holidays (our holiday company) are now working more closely than ever before, and that includes on our Change is in the Air sustainability programme – where our teams are pioneering ways to reduce our environmental impact, improve our supply chain and support communities around the world.  We have just published our joint 2017 Change is in the Air Sustainability Report and here are some of the highlights.

This year’s report includes our most comprehensive carbon footprint to date, for both sides of the business. While we know that aviation is a part of modern life that brings many social and economic benefits, we’re also clear it brings environmental challenges, not least in the form of carbon emissions. From our carbon footprint, we know that aircraft emissions are by far the largest part of what we do, across both parts of the business, which is why carbon and fuel efficiency is still our number one environmental priority.

For our Head of Sustainability Emma Harvey, our 2017 results show encouraging progress, which she puts down to the many efforts of our teams, some great external partners, and a very collaborative (as well as competitive!) industry. We caught up with Emma and asked her about some of the highlights, starting with those carbon results and actions.

Dr Emma Harvey

Emma Harvey

On carbon…

Over the last nine years, we’ve reduced our total aircraft CO2e emissions by 22% — from 5,218,451 tonnes in 2007 to 4,082,195 in 2016. This is mirrored by reductions in two key efficiency measures: COper Revenue Tonne Kilometre (- 17%) and CO2 per passenger km (-22%), with all three measures having reduced 8% in the last year alone. These substantial savings are largely due to our multi-billion dollar fleet investment and making sure we use the right aircraft on the right routes to maximise passenger numbers – as well as a whole host of fuel saving initiatives such as single engine taxiing, real-time weather technology to help pilots make smarter route choices, and rigorous weight management of all products on the aircraft.

“By far the biggest, single thing we can do to reduce our carbon emissions is to invest in new, more efficient fleet – that is, swapping out older, less-efficient aircraft for much more efficient, twin-engine ones – and that’s what we’ve been doing for a number of years now. First to come were our A330s, and most recently we’ve been settling in a number of 787s. It’s these 787s that made the biggest difference to our results in 2016 and led to the 8% drop in the last year alone. It doesn’t end there. From 2019 we’ll begin introducing 12 new A350s into service. Once our fleet renewal programme is complete, we’ll have one of the most efficient, long haul fleets in the sky”.

The new Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA)

“I love that our industry is proactive and collaborative when it comes to sustainability. A great example is the recent Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), agreed by UN body ICAO and nation states in October 2016 – after many years of active support from our sector.

“In fact, in 2008 Virgin Atlantic was one of a small number of airlines that established small industry group Aviation Global Deal (AGD) to campaign for a scheme such as this. I wasn’t at Virgin Atlantic at the time, but I’m told AGD’s ideas were viewed as completely ‘left field’ to begin with. Thankfully our industry body IATA did a fantastic job of advancing the thinking, bringing airlines from around the world into the negotiations. Fast forward eight years – and a huge amount of work later – and a historic, global, sectoral deal was achieved – a massive breakthrough. Naturally, we’re delighted – it’s going to raise billions of dollars for credible carbon reduction projects around the world, and I’m proud that we were one of the early movers.”

Low carbon fuel with LanzaTech

We’ve also continued our ground-breaking partnership with clean tech company LanzaTech to create low carbon fuel by recycling carbon from waste industrial gases and other sustainably-sourced waste streams. “We’re really excited by the progress this programme continues to make,” says Emma. “In 2016 LanzaTech produced its first 4,000 gallons of jet fuel, and also secured US funding for the first demonstration-scale unit, which is being designed right now. Next steps are to advance towards full-scale commercial production and we’re seeking UK government support to do just that. Low carbon jet fuels are at a tipping point and with help from governments and others, we could see affordable, low carbon commercial jet fuels in the not-too-distant future. This would be huge progress as we’re talking 70-80% carbon savings compared to traditional fossil kerosene.”

But sustainable travel is about much more than carbon reductions alone. Here are some of the other projects that our businesses have been working on…


Kathryn Asplin

Kathryn Asplin

Sustainable inflight food

Our In-Flight Services team has continued to make excellent progress in our partnership with the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), helping to ensure the 5.5 million meals served on board each year meet key principles of: fair working conditions and pay for factory and farm workers; humanely farmed meat and dairy; sustainably sourced fish and seafood; and reduced deforestation-risk products (like removing palm oil and soy). Gate Gourmet UK – who serve more than 50% of our flights (all those leaving the UK) – now comply fully with all these sustainable product standards, and our caterers have continued to advance in all areas. For example, all menus on our flights out of the Caribbean now use rapeseed oil, saving 100 tonnes of palm oil per year.

Kathryn Asplin, our sustainability specialist said: “Improving the sustainability of our airline catering operation has been a truly collaborative effort involving our inflight services teams, the SRCA and our global caterers. All the caterers we work with improved their scores in 2016 and I know that everyone is really keen to keep the momentum going and continue driving this programme to even greater things.”

Virgin Holidays

In 2016, our Virgin Holidays team updated our position on working with tourist attractions featuring captive whales and dolphins, by pledging to work with existing partners to improve the welfare of captive animals and by committing to not sell any new attractions which include captive whales and dolphins. We’re also working to support the creation of sanctuaries for animals currently in captivity, and provide more choice for our customers in the form of responsible wild whale and dolphin watching experiences.

Make do and mend – reducing aircraft waste

Stringent rules prevent long haul airlines recycling anything that has touched meat or dairy products, however we have focused on areas where we can make changes, like high value recyclables. In 2016 over one million of our amenity kits were recycled with 55% reassembled into new amenity kits and waste materials going to a variety of new lives. For examples, the sponges from our headsets may soon be surfacing the floor of equestrian centres, while some of our waste plastics are made into garden benches.

Non-profit partnerships

On the airline side of things, we’ve continued our long-standing, much-loved partnership with WE (formerly Free the Children). In 2016 customers donated over half a million pounds in spare change on board flights and our people raised an additional £159,000. This has been used to support communities in locations around the world address the causes of poverty such as lack of clean water, food, schools, healthcare and incomes, and to help them become more self-sufficient. It’s also been used to support WE’s inspirational schools programme in the UK and the US, encouraging, enabling and supporting young people to get involved and make a positive difference to the world. On the Virgin Holidays side, we continued our commitment to the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship by donating another £200,000 to provide training, mentoring and job creation to young entrepreneurs based in the Caribbean.

How can you help?

We asked the team for their top tips for travelling sustainably:

Pack lighter – by only packing what you need, you’ll reduce your weight onboard. The lighter the load, the less fuel we burn and the less carbon we emit. It’s an ideal way to reduce your own carbon emissions. Removing outer packaging from items before you travel also helps, and reduces the burden of waste in other countries, which may not have the same recycling opportunities as back home.

Be prepared – where possible, carry a lightweight reusable water bottle and refill it before you board instead of buying or using bottled water. Carry a reusable shopping bag with you too for your souvenirs.

Offset your flight – we’ve partnered with The CarbonNeutral Company, who support communities around the world via meaningful environmental projects, such as cleaner, cheaper, safer renewable energy. If you offset your flight with us, you’ll really make a difference around the world.

Go explore – Grab a map and walk or cycle instead of taking a taxi. You’ll be amazed what you’ll discover!

Choose a sustainably-certified hotel – lots of hotels are now making special efforts to ‘be green’, so watch out for independent, sustainably-certified options.

Live like a local – eat, drink and shop locally. Use local forms of public transport too. You’ll reduce your carbon footprint, help support the local economy and learn so much more about the country you’re visiting.

For more information and a video summary of the report, visit Change is in the Air  


Dave Gunner

I love telling the story of our people, our planes, our places and our planet through Ruby Blog.

Categories: Our World