An intercontinental flight fueled only by waste oils and fats? That’s the proposal for 2023 from Virgin Atlantic, who are claiming a Boeing 787 trip from London to New York is set to be the world’s first ‘net zero’ transatlantic flight, using 100 per cent sustainable aviation fuel, known as SAF.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says SAF use cuts emissions by 80 per cent, on average. However, the Virgin project, partly funded by the UK government, is being touted as fully ‘net zero’ when it comes to carbon output, thanks to the use of SAF and the offsetting of remaining emissions against biochar payments that contribute to safe carbon storage.
As we move from commitment to action, it is essential for the industry to be backed by governments with a decarbonization goal.Laia Barbarà, the Industry Decarbonization Lead for Aviation
SAF, which can be used by existing aircraft with hardly any modification, has part-fuelled around 450,000 flights since its emergence in 2011. Other recent test flights powered by the innovative product include a three-hour Airbus A380 flight in March this year and a 2021 United Airlines journey between Chicago to Washington.
Virgin’s 787 uses Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engines, which Rolls-Royce says have already been shown to fly with a blend of SAF and conventional jet fuel. Rolls-Royce Head of Sustainability Rachel Everard pointed out that, ‘by the end of 2023 we will have proven that our whole family of Trent engines and business aviation engines are compatible with 100% SAF.’
We’re proud to have been selected by @transportgovuk to make history by operating the first ever 100% SAF flight across the Atlantic ✈️— virginatlantic (@VirginAtlantic) December 16, 2022
Working with our consortium partners, this flight will take to the skies between LHR – JFK late 2023: https://t.co/GQzQbzwWbL pic.twitter.com/R2lmPRlsO6
Virgin’s CEO Shari Weiss also trumpeted the upcoming record-setting trip’s potential impact on the industry norms. ‘[T]he research and results . . . will be a huge step in fast tracking SAF use across the aviation industry and support the investment, collaboration and urgency needed to produce SAF at scale.’
However, the one-off flight is likely to be characterised as an eco-washing gimmick by environmental campaigners, who highlight how far the aviation industry is from its target of halving 2005 emission levels by 2050.
SAF rollout is dogged by high production costs and regulatory issues, making the business case for it problematic. Laia Barbarà, the Industry Decarbonization Lead for Aviation recently called for governmental intervention at the World Economic Forum.
While the US has launched a ‘Grand Challenge’ with tax credits to incentivise manufacture, European nations have complained about unfair competition, drawing criticism from IATA’s director, Willie Walsh.