INTERVIEW - Branson's Virgin to Go Green for Jet Fuel
Country: UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Author: Richard Dean
"We are looking for alternative fuel sources. We are going to start building cellulosic ethanol plants (to make) fuel that is derived from the waste product of the plant," he told Reuters in an interview in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE).
"It is 100 percent environmentally friendly and I believe it's the future of fuel, and over the next 20 or 30 years I think it actually will replace the conventional fuel that you get out of the ground."
Branson did not say where Virgin would build his factories or how economically viable cellulosic ethanol would prove. "We are in the early days," he admitted.
He said cellulosic ethanol "is the biproduct you get from the waste product (of plants), the bits in the field that get burned up," as opposed to ethanol which is produced from fruit or corn for example.
Branson was in Dubai, a booming trade and tourism hub in the UAE, to promote a daily service between London and Dubai that Virgin plans to launch in March 2006.
He also said two Gulf Arab rulers had asked him to set up Virgin space flights in their countries, but gave no detail.
The ethanol idea is part of Branson's broader plans to cut Virgin's fuel bill. In September, he said he was looking at building a conventional oil refinery in a bid to ease a global shortage of refined fuel, including jet fuel.
In early September, Virgin raised its fuel surcharge on tickets sold in Britain to 30 pounds ($55.4) after oil prices touched $70 per barrel in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Price have since retreated to below $60 per barrel.
Branson's Virgin Group has a 51 percent stake in Virgin Atlantic as well as interests in Virgin Cargo, Virgin Nigeria and Australia's Virgin Blue. He said the combined fleet was almost 100 aircraft.
"We use around 700 million gallons of fuel a year between the four airlines. I hope that over the next 5 to 6 years we can replace some or all of that (with ethanol)."
Branson said the launch of the Dubai flight would pave the way for more Virgin brands to enter the Gulf Arab states, which are witnessing an economic boom on the back of high oil prices.
"I'm sure Virgin will expand into some other areas. Hotels is certainly the vision that we are exploring, if we can find the right site...Financial services is certainly a possibility."
Branson opened a Virgin Megastore outlet in Dubai on Wednesday but he ruled out a move into cellphones in the region.
Virgin Atlantic will compete against Emirates airline on the London-Dubai route.
Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, chairman of Emirates, is also head of Dubai's civil aviation authority, but Branson dismissed suggestions that Emirates had an unfair edge.
"I think Dubai is one of the most open, pro-competitive countries there is. We didn't have to ask for permission to come
here, they just let us come and compete," Branson said.
"This region is expanding rapidly. My belief is that Emirates in 50 years time will be around, I think Virgin Atlantic will be around, let's see about the others," he said when asked about state-owned Qatar Airways and Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways.