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Environment back on the agenda as Virgin Atlantic completes bio-fuel flight

  • Important step in the integration of alternative fuels;
  • Second-generation fuels to provide better yields and do not use arable land;
  • IATA calls for Asian leadership in driving aviation towards carbon neutral growth;
  • Governments should play role in alternative fuel development;
  • Asian airlines must clearly communicate aviation’s good environmental track record and a clear vision for the future;
  • Cathay Pacific states EU emissions trading scheme “of great concern to the aviation industry”;
  • Cathay believes "cap and trade" approach is the way forward.

Virgin Atlantic Airways, together with partners, Boeing, GE Aviation and Imperium Renewables, successfully completed a biofuel-powered flight from London Heathrow Airport to Amsterdam at the weekend – the first of several planned tests of renewable fuels by a number of key industry stakeholders.

The move is an important step in commercial aviation to integrate alternative fuels. It recognises that technological changes need to be made by the industry, to move to more environmentally-friendly future involving potentially cheaper fuel sources. The test has also placed the environment issue firmly back on the agenda in 2008.

The Virgin Atlantic bio-fuel was composed of babassu oil and coconut oil, which, according to Virgin Atlantic, are “environmentally and socially sustainable” and do not compete with staple food sources. No modifications were made to either the aircraft or its engines to enable the flight to take place.

Sir Richard Branson, President of Virgin Atlantic, stated, “this pioneering flight will enable those of us who are serious about reducing our carbon emissions to go on developing the fuels of the future, fuels which will power our aircraft in the years ahead through sustainable next-generation oils”.

Several second-generation fuels, which are currently under development, such as those harvested from algae, provide much greater yields and could provide the solution to bio-fuels not using arable land.

Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has called on Asia to play a leadership role in driving the aviation industry towards carbon neutral growth, leading to a zero-emission industry.

Director General and CEO, Giovanni Bisignani, called on Asian governments to play a role in the development of alternative fuels, by coordinating basic research into future technologies, while employing Asia’s “enormous” sovereign wealth funds in some innovative investments.

The IATA chief also stated that Asia “must avoid the mistakes we made in Europe", by communicating clearly aviation’s good track record on the environment, as well as a relevant and clear vision to governments and the general public.

Bisignani called for a harmonisation of air traffic management across the region, to maximise the capabilities of the modern aircraft in the Asian fleet “to set a benchmark of efficiency for others to follow”. Citing various “opportunities in Asia,” including new air traffic procedures in Japan, Australia and New Zealand, he also called for urgent air space reform for the five airports in the Pearl River Delta region of China.

Meanwhile, Cathay Pacific CEO, Tony Tyler, has stated the European Union's plans for an emissions trading scheme is “of great concern to the aviation industry”. He stated, “we couldn't agree more with the industry in robustly opposing the extra-territorial notion that airlines entering EU air space should be charged for their emissions from the moment they turn over their engines at the point of departure".

Tyler added, “that proposal simply defies logic and any sense of fair play. It is surely right that we need a global scheme to which we can all sign up, and not have the EU imposing its solutions on the rest of the world”. Tyler believes a "cap and trade" approach is the way forward.

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