Virgin Atlantic jet making 1st transatlantic flight on low-carbon fuel

A Virgin Atlantic passenger jet flying from London to New York powered by 100 per cent sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) took off Tuesday morning, as the aviation world seeks to showcase the potential of low-carbon options to secure its future.

As the world decarbonizes, airlines are banking on fuel made from waste to reduce their emissions by up to 70 per cent, enabling them to keep operating before electric- and hydrogen-powered air travel becomes a reality in the decades to come.

The flight, involving a Virgin Boeing 787 powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines, is the first time a commercial airline has flown long-haul on 100 per cent SAF.

It follows a successful transatlantic crossing by a Gulfstream G600 business jet using the same fuel last week.

Virgin Atlantic’s billionaire founder Richard Branson, the airline’s chief executive Shai Weiss and British transport minister Mark Harper are among the passengers on board.

The flight is scheduled to arrive at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport at 2:40 p.m. ET.

No paying customers

There will be no paying passengers or cargo on board what Virgin has dubbed Flight100, which comes days before the start of COP28 climate talks in Dubai on Thursday.

SAF is already used in jet engines as part of a blend with traditional kerosene, but after successful ground tests, Virgin and its partners Rolls-Royce, Boeing, BP and others won permission to fly using only SAF.

Aviation accounts for an estimated two to three per cent of global carbon emissions. SAF is key in reducing those emissions, but it is costly, at about three to five times as much as regular jet fuel right now, and accounts for less than 0.1 per cent of total global jet fuel in use today.

The fuel used to power Tuesday’s flight is mostly made from used cooking oil and waste animal fat mixed with a small amount of synthetic aromatic kerosene made from waste corn, Virgin Atlantic said.

Industry challenges

Many European airlines — including Virgin, IAG-owned British Airways and Air France — have said they want to be using 10 per cent SAF by 2030, and the industry’s goal of “net zero” emissions by 2050 relies on that share rising to 65 per cent.

Rolls-Royce’s CEO Tufan Erginbilgic said SAF was the only solution to decarbonize commercial flights in the medium term.

“I think on the big planes — I’m talking about commercial planes, if you like — really, the next 15-20 years’ solution is genuinely SAF. We are making our engines compatible with SAF, so that transformation actually takes place,” he said on Tuesday after announcing his strategy for Rolls-Royce.

Yet the 2030 target looks challenging given SAF’s small volumes and its high cost.

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

‘Nowhere close’

Environmental advocacy group Stay Grounded called Tuesday’s flight “a greenwashing distraction.”

“[Fuel substitutes] are nowhere close to being scalable in the necessary time frame to avoid climate collapse. What is urgently needed is to reduce the burning of fossil jet fuels, which means reducing flights wherever possible,” said Magdalena Heuwieser, who represents the network.

The aviation industry hopes that the Virgin Atlantic flight will highlight to governments the need for them to provide financial support to make SAF more readily available.

Virgin said the engines on the flight would be drained of SAF and tested before the plane returns to service using regular fuel.

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