James Bond helps to save the world
It was three o”clock on a freezing cold morning in Prague and I was sitting in a trailer on the set of the new James Bond movie, Casino Royale, with some of the great team we have at Virgin Atlantic.
While waiting to shoot our cameo roles in the film, the discussion turned from global super-spy to global warming and how airlines could reduce their fuel burn and dramatically cut their CO2 emissions.
The debate began after one of our pilots complained about a crazy situation at New York”s JFK airport. One of our departing flights is forced to taxi for an average of 70 minutes, most days of the year, because of the enormous congestion in the peak evening slots. With the engines running, the 747-400 burns far more fuel than it needs to as it waits in line behind 20 or so other aircraft heading for the runway. All of them are churning out damaging emissions.
Every airline wants to fly to a ”trophy” airport such as JFK. It”s one of the most prestigious in the world and there are few restrictions on doing so, as long as you can find a terminal to handle your airline. Not surprisingly, since deregulation, every terminal is seeking to make money. So they are squeezing in carriers to fill capacity, as well as fill the capacity they don”t have anymore.
JFK is certainly a success story in aviation. In recent years, it has gone from strength to strength by growing its domestic operations. Low-cost carriers have driven up frequency and so legacy American carriers have been forced to imitate them in order to compete for passengers.
There are now three major domestic carriers operating throughout the day, with around 300 scheduled flights. On top of these domestic flights are the international services, which operate in three distinct peaks ” Mexico, Central and South America in the early morning; the Far East and Pacific at lunchtime; and, by far the largest, eastbound transatlantic traffic in the early to mid-evening. Virgin forms part of this group, which amounts to some 150 flights in total, many of them wide-bodied aircraft. It makes the M25 look like a backstreet.
Let”s face it ” there isn”t much chance that this congestion is going to improve soon. So, it needs the airlines to push for changes in operating procedures if we are to cut carbon emissions and tackle global warming.
Which takes us back to the trailer on the James Bond set in Prague. After sketching out the congestion at JFK on the back of a script, Captain Dave Kistruck suggested the concept of the ”starting grid” at the world”s busiest airports.
Aircraft, instead of taxi-ing with their engines running, could be towed to the grid, or allocated parking bays, by electric tug, then wait for clearance to start their engines, run them for a few minutes so they could warm-up, and then proceed directly to the runway for take-off.
It would save millions of tonnes of fuel per year, and substantially cut CO2 emissions, if all aircraft at the busiest airports behaved this way. The technology exists today for towing aircraft efficiently, thereby contributing to saving our planet.
I am really pleased that we are already receiving support for this concept from BAA at Gatwick and Heathrow, as well as Los Angeles and JFK Airports.
We hope several more of the world”s busiest airports will look seriously at cutting CO2 emissions while aircraft are moving between runways and their gates.
At Virgin, we have recently set out a series of initiatives aimed at reducing CO2 emissions in the aviation industry and they are making great progress, whether it”s the ”starting grids” concept or our investments in renewable energy. We won”t be stopping here. We have many more ideas in the pipeline which will show that it is possible to bring about change in the industry.
Within two years that 70-minute average taxi time, with engines running, at JFK should be a thing of the past for flight VS4. Then, we will truly be able to prove that the aviation industry is collectively doing its bit to tackle climate change.