Going for a Biofuel-Powered 747 Ride in Premium Economy on Virgin Atlantic

Environment, Fuel, Geoff Fischer, Virgin Atlantic

Geoff Fischer is back with the second post in his Virgin Atlantic biofuel adventure.  Picking up where he left off in Part 1, Geoff explores the economics of recaptured carbon biofuel and reports on its maiden voyage on a commercial 747 flight from Orlando to London.

Disclosure: Virgin Atlantic paid for Geoff’s travel.

In case you were wondering, LanzaTech’s fuel can’t yet stand on its own economically. Development of their carbon recapture and ethanol-to-jet fuel processes has so far been aided by funding from both the UK and U.S. governments. And yet the central message from LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren and Virgin Atlantic CEO Craig Kreeger is that more support is needed to make this sustainable alternative fuel commercially viable and part of day-to-day operations.

Specifically, Virgin Atlantic is asking the UK government to subsidize the creation of carbon recapture plants in the UK. The pitch is that the plants will get built elsewhere without government support, and the UK should want to promote the diversion of industrial emissions and the creation of “clean energy” jobs.

The CEOs’ joint goal is to bring online enough capacity to fuel all Virgin departures from the UK with biofuels at a 50/50 blend with traditional jet fuel by 2025. (Dr. Holmgren said she believes it will eventually be possible to get 80 or 90 percent biofuel blends certified for use in existing-technology engines.)

But the number that stands out to me most is that they see the break-even point with traditional fuel at roughly $80 per barrel oil. That’s after the next round of government support they seek to begin production. Historical oil price charts look like an abstract EKG, with massive fluctuations. From 2011-2014 oil averaged over $100 per barrel, and then from 2015-2017 it plummeted to the $50s. Prices have been climbing though and we’re now back in the $70s with further rises seeming likely. (Brent crude has been above $80.) In the near term at least, the math works out. But the question of whether the companies will be back asking for even more subsidies if the price of oil drops again is hard not to consider.

Nonetheless, it was no small feat that after seven years of work LanzaTech had turned emissions from a steel plant in China into 1,400 gallons of ASTM-certified biofuel that would finally be used on a commercial flight. They chose a departure from Orlando because it is one of Virgin Atlantic’s largest U.S. stations and is close to LanzaTech’s refinery in rural Georgia. The typical fuel load for a 747 on this route is 28,000 gallons, and so we would fly on a blend including 5 percent biofuel.

I asked Virgin Atlantic officials if any special aircraft maintenance or dispatch (i.e. flight plan and routing) preparations were made for the flight and was told there were not. That’s the good news about qualified “drop-in” alternative fuels – you just drop them in, and it’s business as usual.

October 2, 2018
Virgin Atlantic 16 Lv Orlando 750p Arr London/Gatwick 905a
Orlando (MCO): Gate 90, Runway 35L, Depart 2m Early
London/Gatwick (LGW): Runway 26L, Arrive 4m Early
Boeing 747-443, G-VROM “Barbarella”, 60% Full
Seat 17D, Premium Economy
Flight Time 7h48m

There was a little less fanfare surrounding the flight than I expected. At check-in, passengers were given a letter announcing the use of the LanzaTech fuel on the flight, but there was no ceremony at the gate. (There had been a press conference and private reception at a nearby hotel earlier in the day.) Once onboard, flight attendants handed out commemorative luggage tags and the captain made an extended welcome announcement acknowledging the occasion, which was met with warm applause.

This was my first time flying Virgin Atlantic, and I was impressed by the condition of the 17 year-old 747. The cabin looked in much better shape than the United and British Airways 747s I have flown in recent years, and yes, there was mood lighting in effect.

I was booked in Premium Economy, which is split between five rows of 2-by-2 seats upstairs, and six rows of 2-4-2 seats downstairs. I had hoped to sit upstairs for the novelty and quieter cabin, or in the bulkhead row 14 downstairs – which looks to have a big legroom advantage over the rows behind it. However, those seats were all taken and I ended up in aisle seat 17D, halfway back in the middle section of 4.  I got lucky as both middle seats stayed empty.

Upon arriving at my row, the leather seats each had a pillow, headphones, amenity kit and a wrapped blanket. The seat felt reasonably wide and the padding was good. They claim these seats have 38” pitch, but to my 6’4” frame it sure felt like less, as my knees were touching the seatback in front in its upright position. The placement of the seatback pocket right at knee level didn’t help.

All of the controls and seat amenities were intuitive and well-placed, with the exception of the power plug. It was hiding under the seat and my seatmate had to use his cellphone flashlight function to find and use it, even with the cabin lights on.

Flight attendants came through the aisles with pre-departure water, OJ or sparkling wine. A few minutes later, the cabin supervisor came by to welcome me and introduce herself, and handed out a small menu card. We pushed back a few minutes early with an announced flying time of 7:50. After a quick 15 minute taxi-out we were airborne to another round of applause. The seatbelt sign came off promptly at 10,000 feet and stayed off the whole flight except for one very brief area of light bumps.

Flight attendants were soon in the aisles with the drink cart, and reached me less than 30” after takeoff. The FAs were all friendly and took their time chatting with passengers. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that the CEO was on board (though he was in Upper Class at the front of the plane) – but this was the kind of enthusiasm and warmth that is very hard to fake.

We leveled off at 37,000 feet east of Myrtle Beach, around which time I became captivated by the fact that their in-flight map shows shipwrecks among the points of interest. (Alas, our route took us well north of where Titanic lies.)

About an hour after takeoff the carts were back with our dinner service. I went with the Taiwanese chicken entree over beef stew or creamy pesto pasta. The tray came with silverware and a paper napkin, and plastic versions of the signature airplane-shaped salt and pepper shakers.

While the initial tray presentation with foil and wrappings was not particularly elegant, I have to give credit where it’s due for both quality and quantity. The salad was fresh, the entree and veggies were good, as was the graham cracker and chocolate pudding dessert. The only difference from what you would get in Business Class on most airlines was the lack of an appetizer. But I ate everything on my tray and was pleasantly full.

When trays were cleared and service was over, I asked one of the flight attendants if I could take a quick look upstairs and she agreed without hesitation and gave me a tour. We ended up chatting at least 5 minutes in the upstairs galley and she told me all about the division of labor (Virgin staffs 14 flight attendants on the 747) and why she prefers working on the Queen of the Skies (there’s just more space).

I popped a melatonin east of Boston with 5:30 to go, and tried to wind down and get some sleep. Thankfully, the person sitting in front of me had moved to the empty seat to his right in which he reclined and conked out. If he had reclined in his original seat, it would have been tight. But even with my footrest deployed, my seat reclined the full 4-6”, the melatonin and the eye mask from the amenity kit – it just wasn’t happening.

With about 4 hours left to go I went back to coach where there were a number of empty seats and sought out an empty row of three to lie across. An FA spotted me and came right over. Used to treatment on U.S. airlines, I was sure she was going to sternly send me back from whence I came. To my shock, she asked if she could bring me extra pillows and blankets to get more comfortable and then proceeded to lift the armrests and lay down two blankets for me as padding.

Even with this ersatz “lie flat” set-up, I couldn’t manage to doze off. With 2:30 left I was back in my original seat and ordered a peppermint tea. I had given up, and was watching a British movie from among the expansive selection on the seatback entertainment. There was a fair bit of feedback and static from the disposable headset, but I was so fried I can’t even tell you what I was watching, so it wasn’t that big a deal.

Ninety minutes before arrival at Gatwick they came around with tea and coffee and a light breakfast. Again, function well out-performed form on this meal. The fruit was fresh, the almond-filled croissant was great, and the yogurt hit the spot. (The poor croissant needs at least a doily though, if not its own proper plate on this reduced-size tray.) Demerits are in order however for the instant coffee. I know Brits are tea drinkers, and I have very low expectations for airplane coffee – but you can do better, Virgin.

It was my first time landing at Gatwick and I went back to the empty row in coach to watch the approach over the southern coast and countryside before touching down on a lightly foggy morning. We taxied in past a lot of EasyJet planes and other exotic European low cost carriers. The captain made a warmer and longer-than-usual final PA praising the fuel, proclaiming it had performed “exactly as expected” and that “it was the dawn of a new age of sustainable fuel”.

At the gate was Virgin Atlantic’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, who participated in an elaborate photo op with the flight crew once all passengers had deplaned. This was followed by another press conference with British media.

When asked by a skeptical reporter whether too big a deal was being made over a fuel alternative that would be used as a 50 percent blend, Sir Richard didn’t hold back. With a wry smile he told the reporter that his question came off “a bit negative”, and that at the scale of Virgin Atlantic’s operation, reducing the emissions from 50 percent of its fuel would be a great start.

It echoed what Kreeger and Holmgren had told me in our interview the day before:

Geoff: You’ve talked about building an initial 30 million gallon per year plant in the U.K. Would that capacity enable the goal you’ve set for yourselves of fueling all Virgin Atlantic departures from the U.K.?

Craig: We’re hoping to have the first plant online by 2021, and by 2025 have three plants operational and that would then cover all of our outbound flights.

Jennifer: These are small in the context of petroleum, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Craig: It is really important for our industry because alternate technology to power airplanes is less close than in most others. We can imagine a world in which large trucks and cars are all electric. I can imagine a world in which airplanes get to that, but it’s quite a ways off. So fuel is a more [pressing] problem for us and we are motivated because of that truth to try to do something about it. You start with one flight, and then one plant, and then pretty soon you’re making a huge difference.

Given the alarming news about our environment and climate change, which seems to get more dire each year, I give them credit for trying and hope they succeed.

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3 comments on “Going for a Biofuel-Powered 747 Ride in Premium Economy on Virgin Atlantic

  1. United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz said the following on the airlines’ latest earnings call, “And finally, last month, we made a commitment that no other U.S. airline has made: to reduce our carbon emissions by 50% by 2050. We celebrated this commitment with the longest trans-Atlantic biofuel flight in history between San Francisco and Zurich. Our long-term investment in biofuels makes this kind of commitment possible. We plan to continue to lead the way when it comes to implementing strategies that are not only good for our business, but also for the future of the planet.”

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