Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


sustainability plans move onto the runway

January 2007

Virgin Atlantic is to work with the think-tank and consultancy Forum for the Future in an effort to improve its sustainability performance.

The airline is the first in its sector to become a corporate partner of the UK-based organization, with which it will ‘identify opportunities to further integrate sustainability into company strategies and activities’.

The move follows Virgin Group’s autumn decision to invest all profits from its five airline and train companies over the next ten years – up to £1.6billion ($3.15bn) – in commercial ventures producing renewable energy, and to introduce limited measures to cut carbon dioxide emissions. The latter include towing aircraft to take-off areas to cut fuel consumption and making
planes lighter.

Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic, said his company had linked with the forum to ‘focus on sustainability right across the business’. He claimed Virgin was already at ‘the forefront of developing the solutions we need to tackle global warming’, but Jonathon Porritt, co-founder of the forum, was more guarded. ‘We hope that by working together we can help the airline understand what sustainability could look like for Virgin Atlantic and what operation within environmental limits looks like,’ he said.

Sally Uren, the forum’s business programme director, said the organization hoped Virgin could adopt ‘a leadership position in the aviation industry over the coming months’.

In a related move, Virgin Atlantic, which made £60m profits in the year to February 2006, has given Jill Brady, head of the company’s legal affairs, the task of co-ordinating the airline’s sustainable development plans and oversight of corporate responsibility matters.

Virgin Group has been relatively inactive in the field to date. Outside the Virgin Mobile telecoms business, the group does not have a particularly well developed corporate responsibility function.

Branson has urged other airlines, including British Airways, American Airlines and easyJet, to create a cross-industry forum to find practical ways of tackling climate change. Among measures he claims could cut carbon dioxide emissions by up to 25 per cent worldwide are changes to the air traffic control regime that would reduce the time planes sit on the runway with engines running, and slower and smoother descent patterns to reduce the amount of fuel used for landing.

However, BA said many of Branson’s ideas are already in place or being considered by a group, set up last year, of 70 airlines and airport owners, including Virgin Atlantic. BA said it had been using ‘continuous descent approaches’, as proposed by Branson, for a decade.

Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper welcomed Virgin’s recognition of climate change concerns, but said they were ‘going nowhere near the root of the problem, just scratching the surface’, and that for as long as the number of flights continues to rise, the problem would grow.

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