British Airways: Flying in the face of fuel inefficiency

British Airways has taken innovative steps to reduce carbon emissions, yet was recently ranked one of the least fuel-efficient transatlantic carriers.

If the global airline industry were a country, it would be the world’s seventh largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2), just behind Germany. With increasing global trade and interconnectedness, international air travel and air freight are predicted to increase significantly, and CO2 emissions are predicted to triple by 2050 in the absence of efficiency improvements according to ICCT, an independent non-profit organization [1]. As a result, there is a sense of urgency to improve efficiency in the industry.

It is worth noting that airlines have strong motivation to improve fuel efficiency to the extent that it is cost effective. Fuel costs are a key input and a driver of the overall profitability of an airline, so reducing overall fuel burned is hugely beneficial to the businesses as well as the environment. However, as noted above the industry is set to significantly increase its overall emissions and, without further incentives, many (including the ICCT) believe airlines have insufficient incentives to innovate. Many commentators argue that the free market fails to adequately capture the social cost of carbon dioxide emissions, which was estimated to be around €42 per ton of carbon dioxide in the European Union in 2012 [2].

British Airways (BA), the United Kingdom flag carrier, has nonetheless stated a commitment to ‘ensuring that aviation reduces its impact on climate change’, and has identified new fuel sources, emission-saving initiatives, environmental projects and proactive support of government legislation as key areas of action [3].

Although all European airlines joined the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (a ‘cap and trade’ market for carbon dioxide emissions) in 2012, British Airways was the first airline to participate in carbon trading in 2002 as a participant in the UK Emissions Trading Scheme. This scheme was less punitive than the EU ETS, but set reduction targets and incentivized participants to meet those reductions [4]. For its part, British Airways noted that its participation in the scheme brought ‘valuable experience of operating with an emissions trading scheme’ and improved the firm’s ability to attribute cost to carbon emissions internally.

Alongside its participation in the UK ETS and later the EU ETS, British Airways has undertaken a number of projects to drive down greenhouse gas emissions across its fleet, including [5]:

  • XMAN: With air-traffic control body NATS and navigation service providers, British Airways has developed a system to reduce the amount of time aircraft are held in fuel-inefficient holding patterns – XMAN slows aircraft if they are expected to be held outside their destination airport
  • Single-engine taxi: All British Airways Airbus A320 fleet now perform their taxi from the gate to the runway with only a single engine running. This process saves, on average, 70kg of fuel per flight out of Heathrow airport
  • Wind-optimization: Until recently, flight plans were created using wind speed and direction data that was hours old. British Airways now optimizes the aircraft flight plan for efficiency according to the weather data at the time of takeoff
  • Encouraging innovation: British Airways encourages all employees to submit innovative fuel saving ideas (especially pilots, who have been issued with iPads giving visibility of fuel management systems)

However, despite these technical innovations, in November 2015 British Airways was singled out as one of the least fuel efficient carriers operating transatlantic routes [6]. The report pointed out that British Airways burned 51% more fuel per passenger kilometer than the most fuel efficient carrier (Norwegian Air Shuttle).

British Airways responded with two main reasons for their relative underperformance. Firstly, since the report measures emissions per passenger per kilometer, figures are worse for airlines (such as British Airways) who operate aircraft with more premium seats relative to economy seats, since these airlines have fewer passengers per flight.

Secondly, British Airways points out that it is currently in the process of replacing an ageing fleet. Airlines that operate the relatively newer Airbus A380 and Boeing 787, which are significantly more fuel efficient than comparable older aircraft, exhibit fuel efficiency metrics that are not necessarily a reflection of the company’s innovation efforts more broadly. For example, the Boeing 787 is designed to be 20% more fuel efficient than the 767, which it usually replaces, and is a popular aircraft in the Norwegian fleet.

Notwithstanding British Airways’ counterarguments, more remains to be done to improve efficiency and reduce the company’s impact on the environment. For example, competitor Air France partnered with NavCanada to understand efficiency gains from varying aircraft altitude and air traffic distance to take advantage of the jet stream, finding significant efficiencies [6]. Similarly, Singapore Airlines has realized 2,536 tons of annual CO2 savings from efficient traffic management systems in the Pacific region. British Airways must look both externally and internally and be ready to adopt these industry best practices if it is to move from fuel efficiency underperformer to emissions mitigation leader. (798 words)



[1] International Council on Clean Transportation aviation statement. 2016. Available here

[2] Mendes, L. and G. Santos. 2008. “Using Economic Instruments to address Emissions from Air Transport in the European Union”, Environment and Planning A, Vol. 40, N°1, pp. 189-209. DOI: 10.1068/a39255, available here

[3] British Airways Corporate Responsibility Statement. 2016. “To reduce British Airways’ environmental impactavailable here

[4] International Civil Aviation Organization. 2007. “Report on Voluntary Emissions Trading for Aviation”, available here

[5] Air Transport Action Group. 2015. “Aviation Climate Solutions”, available here

[6] Financial Times. 2016. “British Airways and Lufthansa carbon emissions in spotlight”, available here




Accounting for climate change: new frameworks for new risks and opportunities

Student comments on British Airways: Flying in the face of fuel inefficiency

  1. Very interesting post, Michael. Two things stuck out to me. Firstly, it was interesting to learn that British Airlines was one of the least fuel efficient airlines despite all its apparent efforts to address its impact on the environment. BA’s rationale makes sense (ie. BA has more premium seats, which mean less seats/flights, which likely leads to lower emissions/passenger/kilometer). I assume it is part of BA’s strategy to offer more premium seats but the flip-side is obviously greater emissions from transporting the same amount of passengers as an equivalent airline that was focused on economy seats. I am wondering if BA has or if you think it will in the future alter its offering strategy to address this gap, especially since the emphasis on mitigating environmental impact is only likely to increase in the future. Secondly, your point about better optimizing use of airspace seems like low hanging fruit but it also seems like it is just an effort by BA. I think (correct me if I am wrong) that much of the flight plan, time in the air, holding patterns, etc. is out of BA’s control. Is there an industry-wide effort to better optimize use of airspace that includes the airports, regulators, airlines, flight control folks, etc?

  2. My thoughts are inline with CJT’s above. It is interesting that with all of these improvements and projects in place, BA has significantly worse fuel economy. I think the case can be made relatively easily as to how much of the gap would be reduced after transitioning to the new models of aircraft.

    I also wonder if the fuel economy metrics are considered relative to the flight paths taken. For example if a BAs flights are to certain cities that always have a more headwinds compared to flights offered by Norwegian Air then it can be assumed they will have worse fuel economy even with the exact same aircraft.

    Another opportunity BA might consider are partnerships which share logistical and technological information which aids in reducing CO2 emissions. For example the STAR Alliance which is a network of airlines which allow frequent flyer miles to be used across carriers could also work together to improve carbon emissions.

  3. This was a really interesting post and I would echo the comments above in that I was surprised that British Airways was one of the least fuel efficient airlines out there. However, I was encouraged that even the airline industry is putting resources towards addressing climate change, particularly given how the industry has struggled financially. I wonder if the metric of emissions/passenger should be altered or supplemented with additional metrics, so that airlines that have offer more premium seats on flights are not penalized and made to seem like they are polluting more, when other airlines could be operating planes that are less fuel efficient overall, but have more passengers on each flight, making them appear better. I think one other important tension that the airline industry will need to navigate is customer demand: how to balance the demand for increased services, larger seats etc on flights with the goal to be more fuel-efficient. The airline industry could likely benefit from increased education of the consumer, so that consumers also realize that when they opt to buy the first class seat, they are also opting to buy the least environmentally friendly way to travel.

Leave a comment