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Aviation and the environment: Virgin Atlantic

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 5391 words Published: 16th May 2017

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As the years go by and as technology advances the environment is becoming fragile. This is because of the continual pressure on the natural resources available to man. The adverse effects of human activities on the environment have become evident as there has been an increase in earthquakes, floods, landslides, melting of polar ice caps and the rise in sea level towards the end of the 21st century and start of the 22nd.

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It is due to this fact that the concept of responsible human activities was brought up by environmental conservationists. This concept proposes that the reduction of greenhouse gases can be achieved through the use of cleaner energy and/or through efficient use of energy. The transport industry produces a significant amount of greenhouse gases on a yearly basis; estimated at 15% of the total greenhouse production in the world. Data collected shows that 23% of all carbon dioxide released into the environment is from the transport industry (See, 2009). Carbon dioxide emissions have been seen to grow by half in a period of seventeen years between 1990 and 2007.

Studies show that global greenhouse gas emissions are directly proportional to economic growth. The global financial crisis of 2007 resulted in a drop in greenhouse gas emissions as people were seen to travel less. This shows that the transport industry indeed has a significant effect on global greenhouse gas emissions and therefore measures are needed so as to reduce these emissions in an attempt to reduce the yearly global emissions (Banhart and Odoni, 2009).

Air transport pollutes the environment by emitting harmful gases such as COx, NOx, SOx and particulate matter into the air. This mode of transport has also been criticized for noise pollution with the concord being an example of a noise pollutant. Pollution from air travel is a major concern for environmentalists as the yearly emissions from the industry are expected to increase in the future. This is due to the fact that air travel is still in its growth stages and as the world becomes a global village more air traffic will result. On the contrary, greenhouse gas emissions from road transport are expected to reduce in the future due to the advancement in technology and the use of more efficient engines i.e. turbocharged engines, computer controlled combustion sequences etc. Gasoline engines have evolved in the last twenty years from carburetor engines, to EFI (Electronic Fuel Injection) to VVT-i (Valve Variable Timing with Intelligence). This evolution is expected to continue until emissions from road transport are reduced to the least possible (Balmer, 2010).

There are different proposals on the measures that could be taken so as regulate air travel and reduce greenhouse emissions from the industry. These include increased taxation of the aviation industry, abolishment of incentives for air travel passengers and emissions trading schemes. Other factors such as a responsible corporate culture and have also been mentioned as possible ways through which emissions from air travel can be reduced. The harmful effects of aviation on the environment have often brought to question the morality of air travel with some critics claiming that air travel is not only immoral and unethical as it causes damage to the habitats of people without properly compensating them. Africa in particular is the greatest victim of global warming with the continent bearing the brunt of the commercial activities of the modern world. Global warming has been found to result in reduction in food production in Africa by 10%; 2 million people die in a year due to malnourishment (Cline, 2007).

Some aircraft engineers think that the development of more efficient combustion engines and air frame designs have the potential of reducing the yearly greenhouse gas emissions from the industry. This comes at a time when airplane manufacturers are committed to increasing the fuel efficiency of commercial jets by making better designs. The use of alternative fuels for airplanes is also seen by some aviation engineers as a possible solution to the emissions problem. However, critics claim that as aircraft engines become more efficient there is a proportional increase in aircraft traffic thus offsetting the benefits of the new technology. They further claim that the useful life of an aircraft spans between 12 and 8 years and thus it would take long to replace old technology with new technology thus resulting in extensive damage to the environment.

The Virgin Atlantic Airline is at the forefront of the fight against air pollution. This is evident by the numerous programs and ventures started by the company so as to reduce its annual greenhouse emissions. It is also the first aircraft company in the United States that reports its emissions to the climate registry. This study will focus on the Virgin Atlantic Airline company and will attempt to assess the impacts that the airline has to the environment and the measures that have been taken so as to reduce the annual emissions of the company. The study will also focus on the technical aspects of aircraft manufacture and operation that have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions (Virgin Atlantic, 2010).

Data will be collected from a study carried out in the Virgin Atlantic airline. The data will be collected from technical personnel, engineers, directors, environmentalists and flight personnel so as to gain an understanding of the firm’s practices and how they affect the environment. The data will then be analysed and from the analysis discussions and suitable recommendations will be made.

Research questions

  • What impacts do airline operations have on the environment?
  • What is the Virgin Airline company’s policy towards the environment?
  • Has a pro-environment policy in the company resulted in increased customer satisfaction and loyalty?
  • What technical aspects of airplane design and construction have been changed so as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
  • Which operational measures have been taken so as to reduce green house gas emissions?
  • Are the measures taken by the company practical and realistic?
  • Should other airline companies follow the Virgin Atlantic example?

Literature review

Exemplary leadership and sound company policies are seen to be the key ingredients in minimizing the effects of the transport industry to the environment. A vibrant leadership that is able to formulate sound policies and that can be able to put these practices into effect is desperately needed if the aviation industry is to go ‘green’. The Virgin Atlantic chairman Sir Richard Branson is an example of effective leader who has seen sound company policies being transformed into practical solutions for his organisation. Many companies are yet to adopt similar policies even in an age when there is widespread information on the need to conserve the environment. Sir Branson has welcomed other major airlines and aircraft operators to form a common initiative that will work towards finding solutions for the industry. It is evident that a clear vision at top level management is the driver behind the implementation of environmentally friendly aviation practices (Virgin Atlantic, 2010).

Another contributing factor that has enabled the Virgin Airline to reduce its annual carbon emissions is the fact that there exists a flexible and innovative culture within the organisation. According to the company, sustainability must be accompanied by change; staff have to be trained on how to cope with the challenges of the modern world. The company’s staff have been educated on the effects of carbon emissions and have been encouraged to find ways in which they could reduce these emissions in their respective areas of work. Such a culture lacks in many aviation companies and is the reason why the Virgin Atlantic is a leader in sustainable aviation. (Virgin Atlantic, 2010).

Virgin Atlantic has invested into a fleet of more efficient aircraft that are able to cut the greenhouse gas emissions by 27%. The company has liaised with its manufacture Boeing Commercial Airplanes who have been able to design a more efficient aircraft for the company; Dreamliner 787-9. This is in line with company’s goals to have reduced its carbon emissions by 30% before the year 2020. This plane is built from composite materials that are lighter compared to the conventional aluminum alloys. The airplane also has an increased carrying capacity of 290 passengers. Due to modifications in its engines and aerodynamics the aircraft produces 60 percent less noise compared to the A series Boeing already in service. The company also intends to benefits the customer with this new technology through the reduction in air travel fares and the design of improved cabin environments.

The company has established a fuel panel that has the responsibility of ensuring that the company saves up to 7000 tonnes of jet fuel in a year. This panel is made up of technical personnel, engineers and pilots who meet periodically and formulate ways of reducing fuel consumption. It is from these meetings that pilots are taught how to minimize fuel consumption when in cruise mode during takeoff and landing. An innovative piloting technique devised by Virgin Atlantic pilots is the continuous descent technique that involves a gradual descent by the pilot from much higher altitudes and thus resulting in reduced fuel burnt and consequently CO2 emissions. The company is also working on the concept of starting grids where the aircraft will be stored in bays close to the runways and then towed to the runways ten minutes before departure. This is expected to cut the amount pre take off fuel consumption by half (Virgin Atlantic, 2010).

In a quest to reduce its emissions the company has been able to reduce the weight of its A series aircraft. This involves the substitution of materials inside the aircraft for lighter materials i.e. interior fittings, catering equipment. The company has substituted its metal oxygen tanks with carbon fibre ones, uses lighter paints for aircraft surfaces, replaced metal cargo bins with carbon fibre ones. Other measures such as the removal of used bottles and containers before the next flight have been taken so as to reduce the total takeoff weight of the aircraft.

The company has also taken measures towards the implementation of sound air traffic management practices. The chairman Sir Branson is found to say that the efficiency of European airlines could be improved if a single airline management authority was put in place so as to replace the 35 that exist. He further notes that with better air traffic management this could result in better aircraft routes and therefore reduced emissions. The company has proposed the formation of a single sky; a single authority to man and regulate flight routes. This would however require the cooperation of local authorities and government; the company is working towards the achievement of this goal in the future (Virgin Atlantic, 2010).

Other measures taken by the company include the reduction in energy used by its ground based sites. This is done through proper employee education, investment in cost effective electrical appliances, installation and the generation of electricity from solar panels. The company has also put measures in place so as to save water in all its processes and operations; cleaning operations, catering, clubhouses to aircraft maintenance.

The company has also launched a waste management program that plans to recycle 50% of all the waste generated during active flight and from ground operations. This is aimed at reducing the burden on the environment due to the services and utilities offered to passengers by the airline. The company has even a gone a step further by providing mass transport services for its employees so as to reduce single occupant journeys. The reason for this is to reduce the carbon footprints resulting from services that support the airline but not directly related to it.

The Virgin Atlantic airline has shown extraordinary commitment to the conservation of the environment. Not only has the company focused on air pollution but on other forms such as land and water pollution. The chairman of the company has pledged to reinvest the company’s profits for the next ten years into the conservation of the environment. This commitment is unmatched by any other airline company and analysts claim that it could be a strategic move to align itself with a rapidly changing world that is becoming increasingly conscious of the threats posed to the environment by human activities (Virgin Atlantic, 2010).



The respondents for the study were selected from employees of the Virgin Atlantic airline in London. This was done so as to gain an understanding of the specific measures that the company has taken with respect to the environment. Respondents from the general public were also selected for the study so as to collect the opinions and feelings of the general public with respect to the aviation industry. These respondents were chosen from people living around airports. Top level management officials were also selected for the study; airline directors and chief officers.

Structured and formal interviews

Structured and formal interviews will be used in the data collection process. This method has been favoured as it offers several advantages; the researcher will have control of the process, allows the researcher to prioritize questions, prevents the researcher from deviating off the key aspects of the study and saves time by allowing the researcher to ask as many questions in the shortest time possible. The researcher recorded the responses received and then transcribed these responses so as to facilitate analysis of the data. A copy of the questions sheet has been attached at the appendices section (Appendix 1)


It was noted during the study that some respondents were not available for face to face interviews. This was mainly due to distance barriers and lack of convenience.

Secondary sources

Secondary sources such as journals, books, and news prints were compared with the primary data. These were accessed through physical libraries, online libraries and databases.

Data analysis

The audio records were transcribed to written data. The data was then coded so as to allow for qualitative analysis of the data using statistical software. The IBM V 18 spss statistical package was used to analyse the coded data and from these codes develop visual representations of the data. Benefits of this software include its ability to analyse and develop relationships between various sets of data thus proving useful for the study.


The answers for each research question were assessed and then coded. These codes were then analyzed statistically and the results displayed visually using pie charts and bar graphs.

What do you think is the most notable environmental impact of the aviation industry?

Due to the recent increase in aviation related accidents do you think that the aviation industry is still as safe mode of transport?

Does the aviation industry need to take necessary measures so as to make it environmentally friendly?

Most airline companies are committed to conserving the environment and implementing sustainable practices in their operations.

Does company policy have an effect on the approach of an airline company towards air and noise pollution?

Do customers tend to prefer airlines that are environmentally conscious?

Do you think that the Virgin Atlantic airline has taken genuine steps towards the conservation of the environment?

Can changes in the design and engineering of aircraft reduce the impact that they have on the environment?

Which aspects of aircraft design do you think are the most critical in the attempt to reduce the environmental impact of aviation?

Do you believe that it is possible and practical for airline companies to be sustainiable in nature?

Do you support the proposed emissions trading scheme that will have airlines pay for any excessive emissions that they produce?

Do you think that the Virgin Atlantic airline provides a good example of environmental conscious business for other airline companies?


Impacts of the aviation industry to the environment

The respondents interviewed in the study were found to be well knowledgeable about the aviation industry and its potential impacts to environment. The first question that the researcher asked the respondents was aimed at gaining some insight on the opinions of different people on the effects aircraft operations to the environment. Most respondents claimed that aviation as an industry resulted in pollution to the environment. The three main types of pollution noted in the study include gaseous emissions, release of particles into the air and noise pollution. It was however noted that majority of the respondents claimed that gaseous emissions were the most serious type of pollution that airline companies need to control. It was also found that there is generally minimal knowledge on the existence of particle emissions from aircraft among residents who lived near airports

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Mainstream media has been found to have a great impact on the opinions of the general public towards pollution and the environment. Coincidentally gaseous emissions which include C0x, N0x and S0x compounds have been extensively covered by media and thus the increased interest/awareness in these issues. Particulate matter release on the other hand has not been well addressed by mainstream media and thus less concern for this type of pollution. In a paper by Person (2005) he claims that particulate matter though ignored by most engineers and environmentalists leads to the damage of the environment, deterioration of human health and has harmful impacts on the engine of the aircraft. In the paper he further addresses the need for engineers and designers to maintain low levels of particulate matter from aircraft engines in an attempt to increase engine lifetime and improve on combustion efficiency. The Transportation Research Board (2005) further explorers the need for a regulatory body to ensure that all aircraft produce a certain amount of particulate matter so as to reduce environmental pollution. He further states that biofuels though are perceived to be beneficial to the environment could result in higher amounts of particulate matter release into the environment.

This study was able to show that there is significant knowledge on the adverse effects of uncontrolled aviation. All respondents acknowledged the fact that the aviation industry places some unseen burden onto the natural environment. However, it was also found that there lacks an alternative source for cleaner, cheaper and readily available fuels.

Safety of airline industry

The second question was aimed at investigating on the level of trust and confidence of the respondents on the safety of aircrafts. It was found that 63% of all respondents interviewed had confidence in the aviation industry. These respondents claimed that they felt safe and at ease when using this means of transport or operating in the industry. Further probing shows that most respondents thought that aircraft accidents are inevitable and must occur at some point. It was also common belief among respondents that every type of transport has a certain level of risk with most respondents claiming that aviation has the lowest risk factor.

Airline directors and airline employees were found to be more aware of the potent risks that exist in the aviation industry compared to environmentalists and residents. This is because these people through their experiences in the industry had come to realize that it is through the continuous checks and quality control processes that airline companies carry out that the accident rates are kept low. Engineers and technical staff were particularly found to be most aware of this fact as they were actively involved in the day to day maintenance of aircraft. One engineer was noted to say he tries his best to ensure that aircraft are 100% accurate but sometimes some things go unchecked and these could result in fatalities. He further claims that no human can ever be perfect including engineers and technical staff and therefore there is always some element of risk that exists when flying a plane.

Twenty seven percent of the respondents claimed that the aviation industry was unsafe with most quoting aircraft accidents such as the Flight 93 of United Airlines and the 1977 Tenerife accident. It was also noted that some respondents chose this answer due to lack of sufficient knowledge on the aviation. This was evident among respondents chosen from people living in the vicinity of airports and who had minimal background knowledge on the aviation industry. However, this element of ignorance did not have an effect on the study as only a small proportion of respondents thought that aircrafts were unsafe; 23%.

Need for change in aviation industry

The third question was geared towards gaining an understanding on the general opinion of industry experts and the public on the need for change by the aviation industry. It was noted that 92% of all respondents acknowledged that there was an urgent need for change in the industry. It was found that almost all of the respondents were aware of the adverse effects that the industry had to the environment and to human life. These include the depletion of natural resources, air pollution, noise, and human health complications such as asthma and allergies.

Despite the fact there is sufficient knowledge on the adverse effects of aviation, it was found that little change had been done by most airline companies. After being interviewed most engineers, technical and support staff were found to say that the decision for change had to be made at top levels of the organisation. These respondents claimed that despite the fact that most employees were aware of the need for change they did not have the ability to effect change. The airline directors claimed that most leaders were afraid of change as there was lack of an alternative technology that could be more efficient and cheaper. It was also evident that commitment towards change in the airline industry was lacking as most directors had the ‘impossible’ or ‘too difficult’ attitude. A director from the Virgin Atlantic was also found to say that share holders are more interested in profits and less in environmental conservation; thus profits had to be key priority and not environmentalism. The year 2007 financial crisis and fuel energy crises were also quoted as factors that tend to slow down the change of aviation into ‘green’ aviation.

Level of commitment in airline companies

A survey was also carried out so as to investigate the level of commitment that aviation companies had to the conservation of the environment. The respondents were required to either give a positive or negative response to this question. In an attempt to avoid biases the respondents were divided into categories; establish any differences in opinion by virtue of category. All the environmentalists thought that airline companies lacked the required commitment towards the conservation of the environment and the development of alternative technology. Studies show that environmentalists are often unable to see the economic perspective of any situation and are often biased in their opinions. Goodstein (2010, pp. 9-12) is quoted to says that economists and environmental experts tend to have different opinions as each party is determined to achieve its goals at the expense of the other. From an economic perspective conservation must also have a price tag as the key goal of any business is to make profits. He further outlines the need for economists and environmentalists to agree and make compromises as each cannot exist without the other. Eighty three percent of residents who lived near airports thought that airline companies were not committed to the conservation of the environment. This together with responses from other questions shows that there is a poor opinion of airline companies especially among residents who lived in the proximity. This shows that there is need for public education and community projects so as to improve the relationships between airline and airport authorities with local residents. Most Virgin Atlantic airline employees and support staff claimed that airlines were committed to the conservation of the environment. This is due to the fact that these people have been are exposed to the numerous environmentalist programs within the Virgin Atlantic. However this cannot be meant to reflect all the opinions of employees from all airline companies. This commitment was felt more strongly among top level employees in the Virgin Atlantic; people at these levels have the most responsibility of implementing sustainable practices and due to the perceived burden that they have they tend to overestimate the level of commitment of their organisation. A smaller percentage, 50% of support staff, thought that their airline company was committed to conserving the environment and to sustainable practice. This exposes a trend whereby the further you move from the decision making organs of an organisation the lesser you see this commitment. It was therefore deduced that there is significant commitment among airline companies but not at the desired levels. It was also deduced that an insignificant level of bias exists among some of the respondents; cannot challenge the validity of the data collected.

Environmental conservation and customer loyalty

Results of data analysis show that there is a relationship between sustainable practices of an airline and customer loyalty/satisfaction. This is because of the environmental awareness that exists among consumers of goods and service. People want to support companies that give back to the society and to the environment within which they operate in. Most customers think that it is the moral responsibility of airlines to employ sustainable practices so as to not to damage the environment in exchange for profits. Customers now relate the neglect of the environment to corporate greed and moral decay. 64% of the respondents interviewed agreed that environmental conservation had an impact on customer preferences and loyalty. These included managers engineers and support staff in the Virgin Atlantic.

Maignan and Ferrell (2004, pp. 3-7) expound on the ability of corporate social responsibility to result in an increase in customer loyalty and satisfaction. In the studies the authors were able to establish that these two factors were directly proportional to each other. In fact the authors state that sustainable practices can be used as a marketing strategy by companies and thus offer dual benefits for organisations. The Virgin Atlantic has gained much recognition in the main stream media for its conservational efforts which include sustainability projects, the Gold Standard scheme and the carbon footprint project. This is also the only company that submits data on its periodical emissions. Studies show that public opinion of the company has substantially improved due to this fact and this has brought with it increased customer satisfaction and customer loyalty.

The Virgin Atlantic airline intends to be the most sustainable airline by the year 2020 and its strategy is to be able to gain control and influence over competitors in the industry by acquiring moral and ethical justification from sustainable practices.

Engineering changes and environmental impact

All the engineers and airline directors interviewed were confident that engineering practices and changes on aircraft would be able to reduce the impact of the industry to the environment. This is a positive aspect as it shows that commitment and a sense of belief in the part of top level management and of technical staff. A Virgin Atlantic director interviewed said that his company was committed towards the generation of engineering solution suited to the problems of the 22nd century and to the unique needs of this time. He also quoted the energy crisis that has been spurred by international conflicts with Middle East as the hot spot of the crises. This coupled with the fact that oil reserves are slowly being exhausted there is a need for the generation of alternative fuel sources. He however states that the development of an alternative fuel source that could replace jet fuel and that could also make economical sense would take a very long period of time. He therefore said that it would be prudent if the efficiency of aircraft engines could be improved before such a technology could be made possible.

100% of the engineers interviewed also claimed that they could improve the efficiency of aircraft so as to reduce the impacts that these aircraft had on the environment. The researcher asked some engineers to quantify the amount of time and resources that they would need to cut aircraft emissions by half. The engineers claimed that it would be impossible to quantify such factors as such a move would have to be preceded by intensive research and testing. Once these results are positive this would then give a go ahead for the engineers to put these measures into practice. The engineers further stated that some measures such as efficient engines and revolutionary airframe designs could not be implemented by the airline company itself but this had to be in liaison with the aircraft manufacture. An airline engineer was noted to say that “we as engineers at the Virgin Atlantic can only carry out basic changes on the aircraft. When want major changes to be made on the aircraft we have to relay this information to Boeing so that they could probably effect these changes in the next aircraft that they roll out.”

An airline director was quoted to say that it takes a very long time to change aircraft technology. This is due to the fact that it takes long time to design, test, implement new designs and technology. The useful economic life of an airplane is around 10 years and thus it does not make economical sense to retire a plane that has not fully paid back its on its capital investment. This is a challenge that directors and engineers face when trying to reduce aircraft emissions as they are forced to work with outdated and comparatively inefficient aircraft as these aircraft have not yet reached their full work life.

Riodan (1985, pp. 1461-1463) looks at the moral obligation of engineers and technical staff to conserve the environment. The author says that engineers have destructive and constructive abilities and further states that lack of regard for the environment leads to destructive engineering. The author also states that the environment provides a platform for all of us to stand


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