In a world first, a commercial airliner running entirely on so-called Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) has left London Heathrow to fly the 3,500 miles (over 5,600 km) transatlantic to New York.
While flights partly fuelled by SAF have taken place, this 100% SAF transatlantic trip has been a year in the making, with tests carried out by engine manufacturer Rolls Royce and others, and permissions applied for to overfly certain countries with special dispensation.
But to what extent is it all just a stunt?
History at 38,000ft. Virgin Atlantic is currently flying the world’s first 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel flight across the Atlantic by a commercial airline. Flight100 marks the culmination of more than a year of radical cross industry collaboration to see this take to the skies. pic.twitter.com/97mLaa4hoj— virginatlantic (@VirginAtlantic) November 28, 2023
Virgin Atlantic were the carrier, funding came partly from the UK government, and the SAF was imported from the US and the EU. On board, no paying passengers but instead a group of high profile guests to mark the advent of transatlantic flying without kerosene. These included Virgin’s founder and president, Richard Branson, and the UK transport secretary Mark Harper.
Journalists scrummed around the plane on the tarmac and Branson tapped into the innovation buzz around the flight, remarking “The world will always assume something can’t be done, until you do it.”
Harper meanwhile said, “Today’s 100% 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.” His comments echo previous Department for Transport statements about “guilt-free flying” becoming a reality.
A misleading stunt?
Unfortunately remarks such as Harper’s have angered environment campaigners, who point out that SAF is not the ecological panacea people pretend it is.
It is true that no fossil fuels were burned for the flight, which was powered instead by a blend of recycled vegetable oil, animal fat and household waste, plus around 12% synthetic aromatic kerosene which is required for engines to function. But in fact, it is a common misconception that burning SAF burns less fuel or generates fewer CO2 emissions. Indeed, the amounts of fuel and emissions are the same as they would be if Jet A1 kerosene had been used.
Scaling up remains problematic
Another part of the problem remains that global SAF production is proving very difficult to scale up to match demand for aviation. At an aviation summit in Dubai last week, industry leaders were barely able to agree to reduce the CO2 intensity of jet fuel burnt by 5% over the next six years.
Work to establish five commercial plants in the UK is supposed to begin by 2025. And Rania Georgoutsakou, managing director of Airlines for Europe, has argued for 30 new plants around Europe, to “supercharge supply”.
NEW: The burning of animal fat biofuels is set to triple by 2030🐷📈— Transport & Environment (@transenv) May 31, 2023
❌But there is not enough to scale it up sustainably.
✈️The growing use of animal fat to power planes is raising concerns over the availability of ‘waste’ biofuels.
Read the study➡️ https://t.co/YkEhFMBWyo pic.twitter.com/r33YUbnjko
But the reality is that growing enough crops to create enough SAF to replace aviation fuel would require 50 per cent of the UK’s available agricultural land. Using waste products instead of growing crops from scratch means competing with other established buyers for that waste. And if you look towards inedible animal fat, Europe’s leading clean transport NGO has calculated bluntly that: “A flight from Paris to New York needs 8,800 dead pigs.”
Cait Hewitt, policy director for the Aviation Environment Federation, was excoriating, labelling both the flight and the idea of guilt-free aviation as “a joke”. “Hopefully, we’ll have better technological solutions in future,” she said, “but, for now, the only way to cut CO2 from aviation is to fly less.”