19 October 2021

GreenAir News

Reporting on aviation and the environment

British Airways heralds a “Better World” as it unveils sustainable aviation fuel plans for COP26 flights

In a presentation held at British Airways’ London Heathrow maintenance base, BA Chief Executive Sean Doyle unveiled a new sustainability programme and campaign called BA Better World. It included the announcement of a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) collaboration with fuel provider bp related to the upcoming COP26 climate change conference in the UK and an extension of its offsetting partnership with Pure Leapfrog enabling customers to include SAF as a purchase option for the first time. In a show of support for BA’s wide range of sustainability initiatives, the event was attended by representatives from organisations including the airline’s SAF partners Velocys and LanzaTech, carbon capture firm Carbon Engineering, Airbus and electric-hydrogen aircraft pioneer ZeroAvia. Mark Pilling reports from one of the first in-person sustainable aviation events to be held since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. British Airways has since carried out a ‘Perfect Flight’ using a new ‘BA Better World’ liveried A320neo between Heathrow and Glasgow that was its first-ever commercial flight to be powered by SAF. The airlines said emissions from the flight were 62% lower compared with a similar length Perfect Flight a decade ago.

Presenting the UK flag carrier’s new sustainability programme ahead of COP26 starting at the end of next month in Glasgow, Doyle said: “We all know this is going to be a pivotal moment for change across every industry.

“With BA Better World we’re on our most important journey yet – to a better, more sustainable future and one which will ensure the long-term success of our business. We’re clear that we have a responsibility to reduce our impact on the planet and have a detailed plan to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, including investing in more fuel-efficient aircraft, improving our operational efficiency and investing in the development of sustainable aviation fuel and zero emissions aircraft.”

Stressing its environmental credentials dated back to 1992, when Doyle said BA was the first airline to report its carbon footprint, the carrier is the latest to publicly lay out its sustainability roadmap and insists the issue is a strategic priority.

Doyle made his presentation with one of BA’s first Airbus A320neos as the backdrop. The aircraft has been symbolically painted in a blue ‘BA Better World’ scheme. “The aircraft serves as a constant and visual testament to our colleagues, customers and to all of our stakeholders of the commitment we are making today, which is to put sustainability at the heart of our business,” said Doyle. “The aircraft is part of a much bigger story for British Airways, about how we emerge from the pandemic, thrive and have a more sustainable future.”

The introduction of more fuel-efficient aircraft, such as the A320neo, along with aircraft technology advances such as zero emissions aircraft, is an important component of BA’s detailed plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, said Doyle. In a video presentation (see below), BA’s roadmap to 2050 sees a third of its emissions reduction coming from this source, with a further third coming from the use of SAF, which it says will meet 50% of all fuel needs by mid-century, and the remaining third from “robust” carbon reductions and removals in other sectors. Doyle emphasised achieving net zero by 2050 will take time and partnerships with government and industry, and that new SAF plants needed seed funding and required price certainty for investors.

Doyle announced a collaboration with long-standing fuel partner Air bp to source enough SAF to cover all its flights between London’s City, Gatwick and Heathrow airports and Glasgow and Edinburgh airports during COP26, which he said would reduce lifecycle emissions by up to 80%. COPs usually attract around 30,000 delegates but with international travel Covid restrictions in place, numbers attending this year remain uncertain and Doyle said BA’s schedule over the COP26 period is still therefore to be determined. However, there is expected to be heavy air traffic on the routes between London and Scotland, and the airline has provisioned for enough SAF to offset the equivalent jet fuel used on all flights over the two-week event. The SAF, blended at around 40% with conventional fuel, will be produced from used cooking oil, imported into the UK and will be co-mingled into the fuel distribution systems at the three London airports. Doyle pointed out that BA now also buys offsets to cover emissions on all domestic flights.

“Our companies have a long-standing relationship and will continue to work together on sustainable aviation fuel supply initiatives on an on-going basis,” said Martin Thomsen, Senior Vice President of bp’s aviation business. “At bp we want to help decarbonise the aviation industry and we will continue to collaborate with industry stakeholders and governments to explore viable options to help scale up sustainable aviation fuel more broadly.”

Thomsen told GreenAir the company is making small batches of SAF at its R&D facilities with a view to scaling up production in the future. It is also a long-term supplier and partner with BA, and has signed wide-ranging SAF collaboration deals with other carriers, for example Qantas. The company does have other such partnerships with global airlines, but these have not been announced at this time, he said.

Doyle said the collaboration with bp forms part of British Airways’ long-term commitment to the development and use of SAF. The airline’s parent company, International Airlines Group (IAG), is investing $400 million over the next 20 years into the development of SAF, with BA having formed partnerships with a number of technology and fuel companies to develop SAF plants and purchase the fuel, including Velocys in the UK and LanzaJet in the US. Doyle said he expected the airline would be taking its first SAF supplies from LanzaJet by the end of next year, “which will be an important milestone.”

British Airways, as part of an IAG commitment, recently stated it would power 10% of its fuel needs with SAF by 2030, which Doyle conceded was “very ambitious”.

“But the demand from the industry is there, and now we need to create the supply,” he added. “Although we don’t have a SAF plant up and running in the UK as yet, we’re trying to develop one in Humberside and that’s making good progress with Velocys. If more supply is there, maybe the target can be revisited.”

In the meantime, he said, carbon offsets, although an interim solution, are accessible “right now” and can have a positive impact supporting community projects and biodiversity around the world, as well as offsetting carbon. “In the future, we expect offsets to migrate into supporting funding and research in carbon capture technology.”

BA also announced that customers can now buy SAF to reduce their carbon footprint via its offset partner Pure Leapfrog and SAF partner bp during the online booking process. As well as the existing option for customers to offset their emissions through supporting three projects, another option is a combination of 10% SAF purchase and 90% carbon offsets.

The airline’s Head of Sustainability, Carrie Harris, revealed BA is also in dialogue with its top corporate customers about helping them reduce their carbon footprint from flying through an opportunity to purchase SAF. “They are all really interested in this topic,” she said.

Added Doyle: “The more opportunities we have to talk about ways to offset emissions, the more credible and tangible it becomes and it also drives awareness of the wider challenge we face as an industry. Sustainability is at the heart of every conversation we have with our customers.”

Since the unveiling of the Better World A320neo at the event, British Airways carried out a Perfect Flight from Heathrow to Glasgow on September 14, the first-ever passenger flight by the airline to be powered directly by sustainable aviation fuel. BA teamed up with Heathrow and Glasgow airports, the UK’s air traffic control organisation NATS, Airbus and bp to demonstrate innovations such as continuous climb and descent, SAF and the use of electric ground operations vehicles. Remaining emissions are to be offset, to achieve a carbon neutral flight.

BA operated its first Perfect Flight in 2010 on the Heathrow to Edinburgh route and the airline says the aim of Glasgow flight was to demonstrate how far the aviation industry has progressed in decarbonisation efforts since then. The use of the A320neo, which burns 20% less fuel than its predecessor aircraft, and SAF, which was blended at 35% with traditional jet fuel, along with the other fuel saving measures, resulted in a 62% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to the 2010 flight, reported the airline.

Those measures included the aircraft being pushed back using one of the airline’s electric Mototok vehicles, powered by Heathrow’s supply of 100% renewable electricity, and using just one of the aircraft’s engines to taxi out to the runway and taxi in to the stand at Glasgow.  Air traffic controllers at NATS directed the aircraft on its continuous climb from Heathrow and descent into Glasgow without airborne holding, and NATS provided the most direct routing and most optimal flight level. Climb speeds were programmed in advance and aircraft computer systems worked out the optimum altitude and used accurate weight and wind data to ensure the most efficient journey possible.

The data from the flight will be analysed to fully understand the benefits and how the techniques and procedures used can be implemented in the everyday and in the future.

“We learn a lot from projects like this, which can inform future airspace designs and ultimately make UK skies more sustainable,” said Ian Jopson, Head of Sustainable Operations at NATS.

In order to reduce the weight of the new aircraft and lower fuel burn, British Airways has installed newer, lighter seats, lighter catering trollies and replaced heavy flight manuals and inflight magazines with digital downloads.

“This flight offered a practical demonstration of the progress we’re making in our carbon reduction journey,” commented BA CEO Sean Doyle. “By working together with our industry partners, we’ve delivered a 62% improvement in emission reductions compared to a decade ago. This marks real progress in our efforts to decarbonise and shows our determination to continue innovating, working with governments and industry, and accelerating the adoption of new low carbon solutions to get us closer still to the Perfect Flight of the future.”

Photo: bp’s Martin Thomsen (left) and Sean Doyle of British Airways

Additional reporting by Christopher Surgenor

Editor’s note: This article was updated on September 16 to include coverage of BA’s Perfect Flight demonstration