The most important part of the spat between British Airways (OTC:BAIRY) and Virgin Atlantic over biofuels is not whether BA is stuck in the “old economy” and can’t adapt (as tempting as that might be given the headlines about opening day at Heathrow Terminal 5) or whether Richard Branson is the ultimate public relations wizard.
The real key is that the perfect solution to airline pollution doesn’t exist yet, almost by definition. The reason that going green is both difficult and full of opportunity is because the solutions aren’t easy and aren’t yet available. Instead, it will require substantial experimentation and multiple false starts in order to find the right answers.
I once read that in the early 1910s, there were literally hundreds of car companies in the United States. These companies tried multiple platforms, manufacturing techniques and marketing approaches. And we all remember the number of supposed “killer apps” from the dot.com era of the late 90’s (think: sock puppets). As industries mature, part of the natural order of things is that many ideas will be tried and few will be successful. You need the “failed many” in order to find the “successful few.”
For all we know, the use of biofuels in airline fuel may be a total non-starter. However, the companies that are long-term leaders are precisely those that are willing to try new approaches without certain return, recognizing that many of their seeds won’t take root. You can’t grow anything without first planting the seed and taking your chances.