Virgin Atlantic flies world’s first flight on 100% sustainable fuel

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Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 arrives to complete the first 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel transatlantic flight from London's Heathrow airport to John F. Kennedy International Airport, in New York City, U.S., November 28, 2023. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

A Virgin Atlantic passenger aircraft flew from London to New York, solely propelled by 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) on Tuesday. This initiative is aimed at emphasizing the potential of low-carbon alternatives to secure the aviation industry’s future.

As the world endeavours to reduce carbon emissions, airlines are pinning their hopes on fuel derived from waste to cut their emissions by approximately 70%, allowing them to continue operations until electric and hydrogen-powered air travel become viable in the coming decades.

The flight, operated by a Virgin Boeing 787 featuring Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines, marks the first instance of a commercial airline undertaking a long-haul journey using 100% SAF. This follows the recent successful transatlantic voyage by a Gulfstream G600 business jet employing the same fuel.

Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Atlantic, the airline’s chief executive Shai Weiss, and Britain’s transport minister Mark Harper were all scheduled to be on board the flight, departing from London Heathrow at 1130 GMT and arriving at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport at 1440 EST.

This flight, named Flight100 by Virgin, did not have paying passengers or cargo. It occurs just days before the commencement of the COP28 climate talks in Dubai.

While SAF is already utilized in jet engines as part of a blend with traditional kerosene, Virgin and its partners, including Rolls-Royce, Boeing, BP, and others, have gained approval to fly using only SAF after successful ground tests.

With aviation accounting for an estimated 2-3% of global carbon emissions, SAF is considered crucial for reducing these emissions, despite its current high cost and accounting for less than 0.1% of total global jet fuel usage.

The fuel powering Tuesday’s flight is primarily derived from used cooking oil and waste animal fat, combined with a small amount of synthetic aromatic kerosene made from waste corn, according to Virgin Atlantic.

Several European airlines, including Virgin, British Airways (owned by IAG), and Air France, have expressed their intention to use 10% SAF by 2030. The industry’s goal of achieving “net zero” emissions by 2050 relies on increasing this share to 65%. However, meeting the 2030 target is seen as challenging due to SAF’s limited volumes and high cost, currently three to five times that of regular jet fuel.

In October, the head of IAG warned of a more than 90% risk that the industry would not meet the European Union mandate for SAF availability in 2025.

The environmental advocacy group Stay Grounded criticized the flight as “a greenwashing distraction,” emphasizing the urgent need to reduce the use of fossil jet fuels. They argue that fuel substitutes are not scalable in the required timeframe to avert climate collapse.

The aviation industry is hopeful that the Virgin Atlantic flight will underscore the need for governments to provide financial support to make SAF more widely accessible. Virgin stated that the engines used in the flight will be emptied of SAF and tested before returning to service with regular fuel.

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