British Airways may take the headlines for fastest subsonic trans-Atlantic crossing, but it is Virgin Atlantic’s own flight that should gain plaudits

There has been a lot of media attention on British Airways setting a new fastest subsonic flight time across the trans-Atlantic with a 4 hour and 56 minute journey on its million dollar New York to London city pair. However, it is the Virgin Atlantic flight on the same route that almost matched the journey time that should perhaps be securing the plaudits.

The reason? Well, in times when the environment and sustainability are top of the agenda, the Virgin Atlantic journey operated with significantly less fuel than its rival, remarkably more than a third in fact!

So, how can one airline be around a third more efficient on the same route. Well, it all comes down to generation changes in aircraft technology and why airline fleet renewal has become one of the strongest weapons in the industry’s fight against the constant criticism of its environmental credentials.

The aviation sector is a highly visible target in the environmental debate, and while it is among the strongest industries in its efforts to reduce its footprint, it remains a major target of activists. Many in the industry believe this is unfair, but acknowledge that not enough has been done to highlight these stories and a deliver a coherent voice on the subject.

Changes to global weather patterns is often highlighted as a symptom of the damage to our planet. It is these conditions that actually help highlight how far the aviation sector has come in just a short time to minimise its environment footprint.

Storm Ciara, also known as Storm Sabine in the German-speaking DACH countries, and Storm Elsa in Sweden, is an active extratropical cyclone that formed out of a weak area of low pressure emerging into the Atlantic Ocean from the southeastern United States. The result has been heavy rain and severe winds from across the Atlantic, especially hitting the United Kingdom, Ireland and Sweden.

Careful planning by airline operations staff would position east-bound aircraft flying across the Atlantic into this Jetstream, taking advantage of the strong tail winds to reduce travel time, speeds estimated at around 825mph in the case of Storm Ciara.

This enabled the British Airways and Virgin Atlantic services to take more than 15 minutes off the previous fastest subsonic crossing of the Atlantic when BA112 and VS004 flew from New York to London Heathrow on 08/09-Feb-2020.

But, the big difference in environmental credentials came from the aircraft serving the route: a new -generation Airbus A350-1000 for Virgin Atlantic versus a 25-year old Boeing 747-400 for British Airways. With two engines, compared to the 747-400s four, the A350 will obviously be more efficient, but it is estimated that its fuel burn is over 30% less.

The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) emission mitigation approach for the global airline industry, developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and adopted in Oct-2016 has certainly been a major step forward in aviation’s environmental battle, but the use of modern generation airliners is another.

OK, this does not come cheaply. A brand new Airbus A350-1000 will set you back around USD375 million at list prices, but its environmental credentials are compelling. While Virgin Atlantic senior officials mention figures of between 30% and 50% fuel savings on this same New York – London routing the exact differences are unclear.

However, Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways’ parent, International Airlines Group (IAG), provided some precise figures on how the 747-400 and A350-1000 compare. Speaking at the CAPA Qatar Aviation, Aeropolitical & Regulatory Summit in Doha earlier this month he said that with similar payloads the A350-1000 delivered a 38% fuel-burn saving when compared with the 747-400 on its London – Toronto route.

Mr Walsh described the switch from the 747-400 to the A350-1000 as a “big step change” and said it was why British Airways chose to delay replacing its Jumbo Jet fleet. While replacing the 747-400 with the 777 would have generated a significant fuel burn saving, it would have only been around 24%, according to the Irishman.

Other airline executives have been very vocal on how fleet renewal is a major step to enhancing the industry’s environmental credentials: none more so that Martin Gauss, CEO of airBaltic, who regularly highlights the efficiency of the carrier’s Airbus A220 fleet versus previous generation airliners.

Congratulations to both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic on their landmark flights over the past couple of days. However, in our eyes, while British Airways is taking the headlines, Virgin Atlantic should be gaining plaudits.

NOTE: Out of interest, it is British Airways that holds the record for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing, a two hours 52 minutes and 59 seconds supersonic sortie from New York to London by a British Airways Concorde in 1996.

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