Virgin Atlantic Lands First Flight Powered By Biofuels. Who’s Next?

Virgin Atlantic flew from London Heathrow to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Tuesday using only sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), marking a world’s first in commercial transatlantic travel.

For the first time ever, a commercial plane flew across the Atlantic Ocean from London to New York without using fossil fuels.

Two Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines on a Boeing 787 operated by Virgin Atlantic were instead powered by 70 tons of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), a broad category of biofuel made primarily from waste oils and animal fat that emits 70% less carbon than traditional jet fuel, according to a press release. “Flight100” officially landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Tuesday afternoon.

Though critics are calling the flight a stunt, its intended objective per the UK government, which launched a competition for the project over a year ago and spent £1 million pounds to sponsor it, was a proof of concept. Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) granted Virgin Atlantic a permit “to showcase how the fuel can be used to decarbonize flying.”

“This is a global ambition,” said Anthony Browne MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State a day before takeoff. “When you have technology transitions, it’s the very first steps that are by far the most important. You get the regulatory frameworks in place; you show the technology works. You can fly across the Atlantic in a commercial airline with 100% SAF. Then, you get production going, not just in the UK but in countries around the world. One of the key themes of the United Nations climate summit [in Dubai] last week is that every country is interested. It’s a new industry being created. If you can produce SAF, it’s an opportunity.”

Browne’s comments preceded a post on X, formerly Twitter, from British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak yesterday, celebrating the occasion and framing the UK as a first-mover in the aviation industry’s widely-hyped pledge to “fly net zero by 2050.” (Virgin Atlantic does not claim that Tuesday’s flight was ‘net-zero’.)

For the past year, Virgin has been working with Boeing, Rolls-Royce, the Imperial College London, the University of Sheffield, ICF and Rocky Mountain Institute, in partnership with the UK Department for Transport to pull off this one-time event, which also required approval from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

In previous test flights, SAF’s viability was proven to be a safe replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel in military aircraft by US and UK air forces in 2022. More recently, Emirates powered one of four engines with SAF on a A380 demonstration flight. But Tuesday’s Virgin flight was fully powered by SAF, offering the first real glimmer of hope that decarbonizing air travel for commercial carriers might one day be possible.

“The point is it’s safe, it’s reliable. We can do it, we’ve just done it, and we’re saying let’s get on with the story of manufacturing; We’re calling on governments, industry participants, investors and so forth to create the environment for scalability,” Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss told me at a media event at the Virgin Hotel in New York City, just a few hours after stepping off the historic flight.

The Problem With SAF

The SAF market is currently too miniscule to make a real dent in fossil fuel emissions. Neither Virgin nor any other commercial airline is prepared to offer all-SAF flights on a regular basis. SAF accounts for less than 0.1% of total global jet fuel in use today, and it is three to five times more expensive than regular jet fuel. Meanwhile, alternative “clean” technologies such as electric and hydrogen remain decades away.

Still, many airlines including Virgin Atlantic have set the lofty target of using 10% SAF by 2030. The “net zero” by 2050 goal, outlined by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), relies on SAF accounting for 65% of fuel. That figure assumes SAF production will ramp up dramatically despite low margins for the biofuel, that governments will subsidize it, and that airlines and their customers will accept higher fuel costs. Ultimately, for the scheme to work, prices must come down.

“There is 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,” said Shai Weiss.

Will U.S. Carriers Follow Suit?

The world’s first transatlantic SAF flight could theoretically have been achieved by many other carriers. The UK government, leveraging Sir Richard Branson and his consummately British airline, simply had the pluck to do it first.

“The opportunity to create more of this fuel in the UK should not be lost on anyone,” said Shai Weiss, adding that the U.S. is also “very well positioned” to produce its own SAF market. This is in large part thanks to the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. The act offers tax credits that cover up to 70 percent of a renewable energy project’s cost if it checks several boxes meant to support American workers. That’s a meaningful incentive for manufacturers on both the federal level and state level. For airlines specifically, the Act credits $1.75 per gallon for the production or mixture of SAF fuels to power flights through 2024.

SAF production and use in the U.S. has actually increased in recent years; this fuel is now used by airlines at two major commercial airports in California. Yet, while U.S. production reached 15.8 million gallons in 2022, per government data, it still only accounts for less than 0.1 percent of the total jet fuel used by major U.S. airlines.

Whether it be China, the US, Africa or the UK, it is unclear who will take the lead and become the world’s top producer of sustainable aviation fuel. Because the question of how to monetize the market is still unanswered.

“I’ve heard only positive reactions from other airlines so far. The Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance (SABA) predominantly represents aviation customers who support sustainable aviation fuel by paying the premium for SAFl. SABA is thrilled to see Virgin Atlantic take this critical step forward, proving what we already knew — that SAF can power a transatlantic flight,” said Kim Carnahan, Executive Director at SABA. “We hope this inspires governments around the world to more aggressively support SAF, helping to bend the cost curve down faster for this essential climate solution.”

As the climate crisis worsens, the airline industry’s race to decarbonize has officially begun. As Sir Richard Branson said: “The world will always assume something can’t be done, until you do it. The spirit of innovation is getting out there and trying to prove that we can do things better for everyone’s benefit.”

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