The first ‘Irish Times’ sustainability survey: airlines

Part 3: Aer Lingus and Virgin Atlantic

This is an edited selection of responses to a sustainability survey that The Irish Times asked a selection of food businesses to take part in.

Aer Lingus

What are you/your business doing to end single-use plastic?
Aer Lingus is currently in the process of reviewing its in-flight offering, including our use of single use plastics, in the context of the delivery of new aircraft which will be 20 per cent more fuel-efficient than existing aircraft. An important aspect of Aer Lingus's in-flight offering review is how we can ensure a high-quality, efficient guest experience in an environmentally-focused manner, and in particular reduce the amount of single-use plastics on-board. We have invested in additional, dedicated personnel in order to drive the sustainability agenda and ensure that there is focus across all levels of the organisation.

Have you spoken to your suppliers about sustainability/plastic/excess packaging? If yes, what has been the outcome of those discussions?
We work with local suppliers when possible to deliver our inflight food offer, sourcing locally and sustainably. As part of the in-flight review process Aer Lingus has commenced a consultation process with key stakeholders in order to reduce excess packaging and find alternatives to single-use plastics.

Has recycling/re-use improved in your business in recent years - if so, how?
Aer Lingus is working to ensure greater waste reduction - as a result of the introduction of a more efficient aircraft bar loading system we have achieved a 33 per cent reduction in inflight waste. Furthermore, we have recently commenced an inflight service review to further consider waste reduction across the fleet, while ensuring high-quality, efficient service provision. Experience of other airlines across IAG: BA, Vueling and Iberia, are helping to inform this process.


Are you clear on what is and is not recyclable in terms of plastics?

Is the public more committed to sustainability recycling? Is so, why do you believe that to be the case?
The Irish public are a lot more familiar with recycling, we do it in our homes and more conscious of it in the work environment. At Aer Lingus we are conscious to act as a responsible employer, we encourage our staff to recycle, providing separate bins in order to do so and by providing compostable and biodegradable cups in our canteen. There is a much greater awareness and education in the public sphere around recycling.

What is your business doing to reduce food waste?
Our inflight catering for short-haul flights and stocks loaded on-board are informed by sales data to ensure we reduce the potential for food waste of perishable items. Similarly, on long-haul flights, we will be using new technology to better understand the dining preferences of our guests in order to reduce food waste for complimentary meals, where not everyone will eat on an overnight transatlantic flight, for example. This will allow us to better reduce food waste.

Are your customers raising issues of sustainability including plastic use. If yes, please give an indication of their concerns?
Yes, sustainability including plastic use, is an issue that our guests raise – both through our extensive guest engagement programme and through social media.

What does "sustainability" mean to you/your business?
As we are an airline, our carbon footprint is our biggest environmental impact, and reducing this has been a priority. We are part of the first airline group worldwide to set its own carbon emissions targets. Our new Airbus 321NEO LR aircraft will be 20 per cent more fuel-efficient than existing aircraft and their delivery forms a core part our environmental objectives: to develop sustainable jet fuel and to pursue operational fuel efficiency. Ensuring that sustainability is lived throughout our business is important, and becoming increasingly so as demonstrated by our investment in dedicated sustainability personnel tasked to drive the sustainability agenda and ensure that there is focus across all levels of the organisation. We want to see the successes that we have had – for instance with the reduction in waste due to changes in how we load our food and beverage offer – being achieved right across the business.

Virgin Atlantic

We called our sustainability programme Change is in the Air, because we believe that sustainability means changing things for the better. As an airline, our number one environmental priority is reducing our carbon emissions, since they make up the largest proportion of our environmental impact (it’s why we’ve been investing in new fleet, improving our operational procedures and innovating on new low-carbon fuels).

It’s important to us that we consider the whole lifecycle of the products we place onboard, and that’s why sustainability is a cornerstone in our procurement process and something we regularly talk about with our suppliers. That includes taking into consideration the weight of products (because added weight means added fuel use and resultant carbon emissions), materials, design and methods of disposal.

More recently, plastics has become a high-profile topic for our customers, and it is something we have been looking to reduce for some time (not least because by reducing waste we’re reducing weight, so it’s a win-win for us).

Because of robust disease control regulations for managing food-related waste from different countries, dealing with longhaul international aircraft catering waste is particularly tricky. For example, by law anything that has touched meat or other animal products, like dairy products or honey (or its packaging), which arrives into the UK from outside the European Union, has to be completely isolated and destroyed.

Waste facilities also vary across the world, and this means that recycling aircraft cabin waste is challenging for the airline industry. Our main priority is therefore reducing the waste generated in the first place. And we have been making good progress. We don’t give straws on our flights, but we do hold a small stock of paper ones, just in case, for any customer who might need one. In our Clubhouses, we offer a bamboo alternative, and we have recently replaced our plastic stirrers for wooden ones onboard. We have removed 6.5 tonnes of plastic bags per year by removing the plastic bag around our inflight headsets - instead, we now wrap our onboard charity appeal envelopes around them.

Since 2008, we have been collecting our headsets, blankets and amenity kits to be reused, refurbished and recycled by a specialist company (MNH) and this means they are 100 per cent diverted from landfill. For example, the untouched goodies from our amenity kits are collected and repurposed to make up new ones; the sponges from our headsets are recycled to surface equestrian centres, while plastics are used to make garden picnic benches, amongst other things; and our blankets are donated to charity.

In 2017, we made a decision to remove our amenity kits from our economy cabin, instead providing items on request. As well as reducing wastage, this has helped us to save over 67 tonnes in weight onboard per year. Working with a specialist recycler means that over the last 10 years we’ve reduced the total amount of this type of cabin waste from 800 to 418 tonnes per annum (a reduction of 47 per cent).

When it comes to food more generally, we’ve made real progress on the sustainability of our airline catering operations globally, expertly supported by a valued partnership with the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA). All our caterers worldwide are required to work towards our comprehensive sustainability criteria, provide a statement of assurance that they meet these standards, and confirm compliance through an annual SRA audit.