Across the Aisle From British Airways’ Head of Environment

I know this isn’t entirely about the traveler experience, but I thought it would be a very interesting way to close the week nonetheless. 08_02_01 acrosstheaislebaI had the chance to speak with British Airways’ Head of Environment, Jonathon Counsell, yesterday. We spoke about a new program they’ve launched in cooperation with Rolls-Royce that will enable alternative fuels to be tested using engines on BA aircraft.

Basically, they’re inviting fuel suppliers to bring alternative fuels that are scalable and won’t have a negative impact on food, land, or water. Once they’ve got those narrowed down, they’ll run ground tests on the fuel and then eventually air tests as well. BA has always been very accessible, and I gladly took the chance to speak with them about this initiative. Read below for our discussion.
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Cranky: What sort of interest have you seen from fuel suppliers to date?

Jonathon: We’ve had an ongoing debate with major fuel companies, so pretty much all the majors are interested. Three or four additional companies have approached us as well. We’re drawing up a short list of up to about a dozen companies.
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Cranky: Other airlines, notably Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand, have run tests of biofuels recently. Would either of those fuels be eligible for testing in this program or do they not meet the criteria that you have set forth?

Jonathon: We’re not being overly prescriptive in terms of a particular fuel. It has to be what we call a drop-in fuel, meaning it has to work with existing technology. It has to be able to power the engines without modifying them, and it must work with existing supply technology. Also, it can’t compete with food, land or water supplies. I believe the Virgin fuel may not qualify because it competed for food crops. Apart from that, we’re not going to overspecify. We’ve intentionally called it alternative fuel instead of biofuel because it will be difficult for biofuel to meet those conditions because of the conflict with food or rainforest devastation. That being said, we’re not ruling out biofuel.
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Cranky: Are there any incentives being offered to encourage fuel suppliers to participate? Is there a prize of some sort?

Jonathon:The big incentive is that any company that can supply fuel meeting the criteria will have a massive prize. Every airline around the world will want to buy it.
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Cranky: What will you consider to be a successful test? Are there specific levels of fuel economy and emissions that must be reached for you to deem this a success?

Jonathon:We will lay out broad performance criteria. It needs to be commercially viable but we haven’t specified what that means yet.
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Cranky: Are there any partners in this study beyond you and Rolls Royce? Have you involved any third party scientific organizations to oversee the data collection and interpretation?

Jonathon: No. Currently it’s just Rolls-Royce and ourselves. There will be a joint assessment between us. We’ll look at whether we need external experts on this or not. Rolls works with a number of universities, and so do we, and we’ll be looking at a number of contacts in the scientific field.
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Cranky: You say testing will be complete by March 2009, but how long do you expect it to take before the results are finalized?

Jonathon:Quite shortly afterwards. Testing will start in January and it will take 4 to 6 weeks. Published results will be available shortly after the end of March.
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Cranky: Will you be sharing the results of your study publicly?

Jonathon: Yes, we will be making the results public.
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Cranky: What sort of response have you had from the community so far?

Jonathon: It’s been a very positive response from the community. We deliberately launched this prior to Farnborough and it’s certainly been a big topic of discussion.
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Cranky: Have you spoken to any of your other partners about participating, like American Airlines?

Jonathon: Yes, we’ve had a couple of early conversations with American Airlines and certainly we’ll pick up on those.
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So there you have it. It’s an interesting way to put this together. The idea is basically to say, “Hey, you got some good fuel? Come talk to us and we’ll let you test it on one of our engines for free.” I’ll be looking forward to seeing the results.


15 Responses to Across the Aisle From British Airways’ Head of Environment

  1. Frog Man says:

    “won’t have a negative impact on food, land, or water.”

    WTF. Name me one fuel source that, in some fashion, won’t impact food, land or water.

    Particularly a fuel source that needs to fit within existing engine technology… at massive scale.

    Perhaps they can get Harry Potter and his merry band to wizard some up out of thin air.

    Your too nice an interviewer. You need to get more cranky on fluffy guys like this.

  2. DRG says:

    By “rain forest devastation,” I am assuming he is referred to sugar cane, which is used to make ethanol in Brazil? Pity, sugar cane would be ideal for ethanol since it can be produced much less expensively and in the developing world and “may” be greener than ethanol from corn — the Brazilians claim it is.

    There was a great article about this in the Economist recently:
    http://www.economist.com/world/la/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11632886

  3. CF says:

    Frog Man – Asking more questions wouldn’t have mattered. He was very clear on this that they are completely ambivalent to how it happens. They’ve just put a threshold out there and they want to see if fuel suppliers can meet it. If so, well, then they’ve got a jet engine to play with to see if it works.

  4. Frank says:

    They can do this becasuse they don’t have to deal with the US congress.

  5. A says:

    DRG – by rainforest devastation I’m sure they are referring to Palm Oil.

  6. Sue says:

    listen: any major transportation company that is going public like this to find alternative energy sources has a big high 5 from me. The sooner we can –buzz words here–“reduce our dependence” on OPEC and The Middle East in general–and anybody ELSE driving up gas prices, I don’t CARE who they are– the better off we’ll be. Yeah, it’s the popular opinion–because it MAKES SENSE. Go BA, and since I already am a frequent flier on American, good for them! If they don’t ick up on this–WHEN it works–I’m switching miles programs.

  7. Sue says:

    that should say “if they don’t PICK up on this” sorry

  8. QRC says:

    Cranky, your article made me think of Rolls Royce and specifically engines in general. On a recent taxi ride in Hong Kong, the driver (a local HK guy) was lamenting to me how CX insisted on using Rolls Royce engines for their 777s (actually I think they use them across the fleet). His idea was since management was comprised of arrogant Brits (quoting his Chinese) – he didn’t seem exactly fond of British people – they insisted on Rolls simply because it’s British and thus the choice was out of some national pride thing, instead of practicality. He also said hardly any other airlines use the engines, compared to say GE or Pratt&Whitney. It seems like here BA does and his argument was probably a bit over the top…anyhow, his complaint was it made CX flights delayed whenever they had engine problems around the world because many places didn’t have Rolls Royce engine parts in stock. Any truth to this?

  9. Dan Webb says:

    QRC – from the Rolls Royce Website:

    “Trent 800 is the market leading engine on the Boeing 777 with a 41 per cent share.”

  10. CF says:

    QRC – BA actually has both GE and Rolls engines for its 777s. I believe the ERs have the Rolls Trents while the others have GE90s. I haven’t heard anything about excessive problems on the Rolls. CX is indeed a very Rolls-loving airline, but they’ve got GEs on their 777-300ERs. So, they aren’t as married to Rolls as they used to be.

  11. Dan Webb says:

    I’m not positive on this one, but I think GEs are the only option on the -300ER.

  12. CF says:

    Dan – I believe you’re right on that one, but in the past I’m guessing that would have been enough for CX to find another plane. They were fiercely loyal to Rolls, for whatever reason.

  13. Dan Webb says:

    Ah, ok, I see what you’re saying. Sorry.

  14. Sue – I agree that this is a good initiative, however I do not think that airliners will have the capabilities that cars do, with alternative fuels, for quite some time. The only successful alternative fuel engine-powered flight that I know of is the Boeing Dimona.

  15. Albert says:

    Oil prices actually haven’t gone up if you price it against gold. What has gone down is the value of the US dollars.

    Anyway, that aside, I agree, this is a fairly cool initiative on BA’s part. Sure, they get some PR out of it, but at the same time this is a chance for some crank out there to test his (or her) alternative fuel on a real engine jet. This is not an opportunity that one encounters on a daily basis.

    For the most part, I don’t think they’ll find anything, but who knows, it just may lead to something better.

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