COMMENT: Virgin Australia has got beef with climate activists, but has it bitten the hand that feeds?
In a heated moment the airline boss Paul Scurrah said he felt the airline industry was being unfairly singled out as a scapegoat for climate change.
At the Australian national Infrastructure summit the airline executive revealed that the "flight shaming" movement popularised by Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg had already begun to eat into passenger numbers. Well before the pandemic disruptions, airlines in Europe had already noticed the effect of eco-conscious travellers opting out of air travel.
Last year "Flygskam" entered the lexicon as Financial Times' word of 2019. Next to Mirriam Webster's choice of "climate strike" and the OED's "climate emergency"– all this spelled trouble for airlines.
"You don't see people burger shaming," Scurrah told the summit.
It's fair for the airline boss to find a bone of contention with areas like food and meat processing, which account for a higher proportion of the world greenhouse gas emissions than even jumbo jets. All in all, food production, processing and transport accounts for a quarter of total greenhouse gases.
The public picture of "gas guzzling" jets like the now largely retired 747 super jumbo is outdated. Bio fuels and energy efficient Dreamliners are far leaner in their carbon consumption than they ever were, Scurrah said.
"There is a lot happening, but we're just not doing a good a job of selling that," he said.
However, were there a fresh appetite for "burger shaming" Virgin Australia might a double helping of criticism.
Airlines pick a bun fight with the beef and dairy industry at their peril.
When in 2018 Air New Zealand started serving plant-based Impossible Burgers on their Los Angeles to Auckland route, Kiwi farmers bit back.
The heated fake-meat debate made it as far as parliament, with calls for the national carrier to explain itself for serving up this "slap in the face" for the New Zealand red meat sector.
NZ First's Mark Patterson went as far as to say the synthetic protein posed "an existential threat" to meat farmers.
First airline to stick in the steak knife and make hay of this rare misstep was, you guessed it, Virgin Australia.
Days later the airline made a public callout to Kiwi meat producers. A social media ad delivered in the middle of a herd of cows pledged to serve New Zealand beef on its transtasman flights. A clear dig against Air New Zealand.
"Over the Ditch lies one of New Zealand's biggest fans," said the farmer from central casting. "They go by the name of Virgin Australia."
Meat continued to be a bone of contention for the two airlines. Launching Virgin's Newcastle to Auckland route, Scurrah's predecessor Rob Sharp led a giveaway at central Auckland's White Lady burger bar – handing out 700 patties.
Two years on the airline has gone off New Zealand and our meat. After closing New Zealand crew bases, Virgin said the transtasman routes had been unprofitable well before the current travel restrictions. One wonders when they will return.
As other airlines wait to resume flights between Australia and New Zealand tomorrow morning, Virgin is a long way from resuming their own services.
The Aussie-New Zealand route used to be Virgin's bread and butter. Now they've killed the sacred cow.