Does Virgin’s First 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel Flight Herald a New Dawn of Green Flying?

by | Dec 7, 2023 | All Articles, Reduce Energy Costs

Is Virgin’s Maiden Sustainable Aviation Fuel Transatlantic Crossing the Catalyst for Greener Flying?

With the recent news that the Virgin100 Consortium used a 747 Dreamliner for the “world’s first” 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) transatlantic flight from Heathrow to JFK in New York, we now ask, has a major breakthrough been made for the aviation industry? 

The much-maligned Aviation Industry

Before delving into the merits of this, it’s worth taking a little step back and adding some context here. 

When it comes to climate change, the Aviation Industry has a lot of the world’s eyes trained on it. 

Aviation fuel is a large contributor to CO2 emmissions. According to – 4.7% of all European emmissions were contributable to aviation fuel in 2019 – and is estimated to be double that come 2050, if left unchecked.

So Virgin’s move appears to be unarguably a bold step forward. 

The use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)

In this particular ground-breaking (or air-breaking) flight, Virgin fueled the 747 with a blend of 88% hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) made from waste fats provided by Air BP and 12% synthetic aromatic kerosene (SAK), made from plant sugars and supplied by Virent.

Essentially a “trial run”, the flight provided an opportunity to understand not only the ability to understand the compatibility of the SAF with today’s engines – and impact on performance – but it also provided an opportunity to research the impact on contrails and pollution.

Virgin were naturally delighted with the flight.

Shai Weiss, chief exec of Virgin Atlantic is quoted as saying; 

“It’s taken radical collaboration to get here and we’re proud to have reached this important milestone, but we need to push further,” he said. “There’s simply not enough SAF and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment. This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by Government, are in place. Flight100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.”

So is it problem solved?

Not quite. 

SAF’s currently meets less than 1% of all aviation fuel demand worldwide. The biggest reason for this is being able to produce a large enough scale of it – and at a competitive price. 

Not only that though. As crackers as it may seem, but current international standards do not yet permit more than a 50% blend of SAFs with traditional aviation fuels – and indeed a special permit had to be sought to make this flight. 

Still, the Virgin flight is being seen as a positive step in many quarters. 

This week’s Transport Secretary, Mark Harper, who was one of those who boarded the flight said:

“Today’s 100 per cent SAF powered flight shows how we can decarbonise transport both now and in the future, cutting lifecycle emissions by 70% and inspiring the next generation of solutions. This government has backed today’s flight to take-off and we will continue to support the UK’s emerging SAF industry as it creates jobs, grows the economy and gets us to Jet Zero.”

What next for SAFs?

It is undoubtedly a positive step. However, some green groups are ranging from erring on the side of caution with the news to outright scepticism. 

Cait Hewitt – Policy Director of the Aviation Environment Federation said that; 

“SAFs represent around 0.1 per cent of aviation fuel globally and will be very hard to scale up sustainably. The other fact that often gets obscured by the industry is that SAFs emit as much CO2 as kerosene at the tailpipe. Airlines want to argue that because alternative fuels are made from waste plant matter, this offsets the emissions from the flight. But that’s misleading. Plant waste represents a historic capture of CO2 – from the process of growing – that’s happened anyway. Turning it into aircraft fuel means putting more CO2 in the air today. Hopefully, we’ll have better technological solutions in future, but for now, the only way to cut CO2 from aviation is to fly less.”

Whilst Paul Thompson, head of renewable transport fuels at the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology, said;

“REA welcomes this first ever transatlantic flight using SAF today and congratulate all the project partners. The decarbonisation of the aviation industry is a key sector to meet Net Zero and having been very closely involved with our members and Government on developing policy in this field we welcome this landmark. However, in the longer term we know this is not a ‘silver bullet’ and a mix of technologies, such as zero carbon hydrogen and electrification, will be necessary, alongside addressing the elephant in the room of ever growing aviation use.” 

Moving forwards

It is undeniable that the Virgin100 consortium nudged the dial a little bit forward with this flight.

What it does highlight perfectly though is that there is a significant level of investment needed. This is clearly at an embryonic stage, but the Aviation industry coupled with planning and a willingness to make some bottom-line sacrifices can work towards the greater good with regards SAFs.

The biggest issues with SAFs are it’s availability on a large enough scale – and making the pricing competitive – albeit the two are likely to go hand-in-hand of course. Whilst some sceptics argue is it really that green afterall?

Whilst the Aviation Industry is willing to make efforts and concessions to move forward and tackle its impact on the climate, little is being done to convince climate groups that the best answer at the moment is to fly less.

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