Being responsible for around 4% of global carbon emissions, the aviation industry is becoming more and more eager to increase the share of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) on their flights. Previous assessments have concluded that airlines operating with SAF can reduce the emissions of jet fuel by up to 80%.
1. SAF is gaining momentum
In December 2021, a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Washington DC flew its first commercial flight using non-fossil-fuel fuels and counted its CEO among the passengers. The journey and made international headlines, encouraging other airlines to follow suit. Also recently, Turkish Airlines debuted a SAF flight on a commercial flight for the first time on an international flight, from Istanbul to Paris.
The slow but sure uptake of SAF is great news for air travellers and the airtime that it’s being given by the media to this remarkable shift is sure to drive other major airlines to invest on SAF on their flights.
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) more than 370,000 flights have been using at least some SAF since 2016, contributing to a small reduction in emissions for those flights. Still, IATA stressed that SAF can reduce emissions by up to 80%, when compared to the use of jet fuel.
2. What is SAF?
Breaking free from the old kerosene is the goal to achieve for all airlines pledging towards decarbonization. But what exactly is SAF? Sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, is still fuel. It’s a product of kerosene that results in a burnable fuel similar to standard airline jet fuel. The main difference, however, is in how it’s developed.
According to GE Aviation, SAF is not derived from fossil fuels, but from organic materials like plants and algae, greases and fats, alcohol, sugar and other waste streams. The result is a burnable kerosene product that can power an airplane.
3. When will SAF surpass kerosene?
It may take a while for airlines worldwide to start operating entirely with SAF. In the United States, the Biden administration announced a goal to reduce emissions from aviation by 20% by 2030 and for the aviation industry to meet net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. While airlines are aware of their environmental footprint and eager to offset it, adopting SAF is part of a long-term reduction plan and it will certainly take some time.
According to Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders, the first technical test flight with SAF was conducted by Air New Zealand in 2008 on a Boeing 747. That year marked the start of test flights and initial involvement with SAF trials, research and investigation of local opportunities. Ever since, a range of experiments have been done by several airlines. Some airlines are starting to offer direct-to-passenger sales of SAF through their flight booking systems.
4. SAF production
IATA estimates that 26.4 million gallons of SAF were produced worldwide in 2021, and that number seems to increase year-after-year going forward, as both consumers and regulatory frameworks demand it. The Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, a coalition of airlines, airplane and engine manufacturers, US agencies, energy producers, and researchers, projects rapid growth in SAF production capacity worldwide, from approximately 70 million gallons in 2021 to 2.6 billion gallons in 2025.