OPINION: BA’s green route is no new departure

When British Airways announced its biggest new aircraft order for a decade late last month, the press release was unlike anything that has accompanied such an order by the airline before.

Hilton: City commentator, London’s <em>Evening Standard</em>
Hilton: City commentator, London’s Evening Standard

The previous big announcement a decade ago was when the airline was under the stewardship of Bob Ayling. It was all about route structures and catering for changing passenger needs. The theme was that passengers were rebelling at having to change planes in massive hub airports and would tolerate a less frequent service from more remote locations if it meant they could fly point-to-point with no changes. BA was responding to this by investing in planes suitable for long, thin routes.

I recall being called by Ayling at home on the Sunday afternoon prior to the Monday announcement, so anxious was he to put across the message that the entire fleet was being changed to better serve its customers, give it much greater flexibility and set it apart from its competitors. His theme was that BA was being positioned for growth and profitability.

Contrast this with the release last month, where passenger route structures and business development figures featured almost as an afterthought. Instead, the focus was on how environmentally friendly the aircraft are compared to those they replace.

‘The aircraft will be greener, quieter and more fuel efficient, with significantly lower CO2 emissions’, the company says, while chief executive Willie Walsh chips in by saying: ‘These aircraft set the gold standard when it comes to environmental performance in the key areas of CO2 emissions, local air quality and noise.’

This change of emphasis speaks volumes about how climate change has soared up the agenda and how desperate companies such as airlines are to be seen as good corporate citizens. But new aircraft are almost always more fuel efficient and quieter than those they replace because of the astonishing pace of engine development at Rolls Royce in the past 30 years. Indeed, airlines have previously taken this as a given. Not so now. Aircraft procurement policy may not have changed in ten years but the way it is presented certainly has.

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