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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cranky: Will you be sharing the results of your study publicly?

Jonathon: Yes, we will be making the results public.
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.
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.
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.

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