Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Virgin Atlantic has achieved a groundbreaking milestone with the first transatlantic flight of a large passenger plane powered exclusively by sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).
Operating a Boeing 787 from London's Heathrow to New York's JFK airport, the flight is seen as a crucial demonstration of the feasibility of a more sustainable approach to air travel.
The aircraft has been loaded with 50 tonnes of SAF, consisting of 88% from waste fats and 12% from the by-products of corn production in the US.
This historic flight, supported by government funding, underscores the industry's commitment to exploring environmentally friendly alternatives. SAF is regarded as a key tool in the aviation sector's efforts to reduce net emissions to zero.
While planes using SAF still emit carbon, the industry contends that the "lifecycle emissions" of these fuels can be up to 70% lower than traditional fuels.
The UK Civil Aviation Authority approved the flight following meticulous testing and analysis earlier this month. Multiple stakeholders, including Virgin Atlantic, engine maker Rolls-Royce, and energy giant BP, collaborated on this project. However, the flight is a one-off demonstration and does not carry paying passengers.
Virgin Atlantic's CEO, Shai Weiss, emphasised the significance of the achievement, stating that it proves "fossil-derived fuel can be replaced by sustainable aviation fuel."
He acknowledged the existing challenge of insufficient SAF supply and anticipated that flight prices would be higher due to the increased cost of alternative fuel. Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson acknowledged that achieving widespread SAF usage would take time, emphasising the importance of initiating the shift.
While SAF currently accounts for less than 0.1% of global aviation fuel consumption, its adoption is considered a critical step toward decarbonisation. The industry envisions SAF as the most effective tool available to achieve its emissions reduction targets.
Virgin Atlantic's successful transatlantic flight using 100% SAF is a notable milestone, yet experts caution that alternative solutions, such as e-fuels and hydrogen, will be necessary for comprehensive decarbonisation in the future.