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Virgin lags in scumjumbo race, bins airliner drag-start plans

Clean green sheen less seen at beard-biz empire

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Beardy biz kingpin Richard Branson's green image lost some of its sheen yesterday, as his Virgin airline revealed that a widely-touted carbon saving scheme to tow airliners during ground taxiing operations would not proceed. Meanwhile, the company has also admitted that it may not, in fact, be involved in the first airliner trials of more righteous algae-based aviation biofuel.

The Times reported yesterday that the airliner-towing initiative had been effectively binned, after aircraft builder Boeing determined that towing loaded airliners significant distances on the ground would seriously affect the lifespan of their undercarriages. Virgin had planned to have its planes hauled from airport boarding gates to special "starting grids", much nearer the runway. This would have avoided the need for the aircraft to run their fuel-hungry jets on the ground so much, saving as much as two tonnes of CO2 per flight by Virgin's estimates.

Flight International also reported on Friday that, while Virgin remains very keen to see algae-based biofuel developed and tested, it will not be the first airline to use this technology. In fact, the first airliner test flight on algae-based juice will be carried out by Air New Zealand in partnership with Boeing.

Virgin has recently carried out a test in which food-crop-based fuels were employed; but this technology is not seen as a viable replacement for fossil fuel. Running any significant proportion of the world's transport on food crops would require a massive expansion in farming if it were not to cut into world food supplies. Such an expansion may not even be possible, and in any case would surely lead to massive deforestation, severe strain on water supplies and other ecological problems.

These things are admitted by Branson and his fellow airline kingpins, which is why they look to algae as their great green hope for the future. It might be possible to grow vast feedstocks of algae scum on effectively unused stretches of water - perhaps even salt water, which would be very handy. Correctly chosen/engineered strains of algae would perhaps be able to draw their carbon primarily from atmospheric CO2, rather than from artificial fertilisers; thus the carbon released by airliners so fuelled would be compensated for at the source.

The Air New Zealand flight later this year will use fuel derived from algae - but it may not be saltwater algae, and the production is unlikely to have been genuinely carbon neutral at this stage of the technology. Furthermore, as Branson says, "the challenge is to make as much quantity of it as we possibly can" - as economic production in bulk won't be simple.

While Virgin and Branson have striven to present themselves as leading the present airline industry search for alternative fuels, it is being pushed at least as much by airframe maker Boeing and engine makers Rolls-Royce and GE. Any hint of greenery is always welcome to all these companies, both for marketing and perhaps in future for regulatory and/or tax reasons. However, there are also very serious present-day commercial worries over price and availability of Middle Eastern crude oil and products based on it - like jet fuel. If biofuel can't fill the gap, the Western transport industries might turn instead to plans such as coal-based synthetic fuels - even though this involves a hugely increased carbon burden, as a ton of coal is burned in production for every ton of fuel produced. But coal is cheap, and supplies are secure for at least some Western countries.

Against that sort of background, even a potentially rather pale green strategy could look quite righteous. But not to some.

"Virgin is using bogus green initiatives," Ben Gazzard of anti-airline pressure group the Aviation Environment Federation told the Times. Gazzard suggested that Branson is engaged in "an attempt to make passengers feel less guilty about flying and persuade regulators to allow the industry to carry on growing at its present unsustainable rate".

In essence, orthodox greens don't believe wonder scum-juice will ever work, and in any case don't believe the airline industry is serious about shifting to it. Their preferred solution would be much less air travel, and many fewer road vehicles too. And not too much clean rail travel either, realistically, as this would add to electricity demand rather than reducing it in accordance with their plans.

So it's down to new tech of some kind - algae, hydrogen, whatever - or basically no travelling. Or, of course, you need to disbelieve in CO2-driven climate change.

Read the Times report here and the Flight report here. ®

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