Virgin Atlantic Logs First Transatlantic Flight on 100% ‘Sustainable’ Jet Fuel

On Tuesday, Virgin Atlantic conducted the first transatlantic flight by a commercial airliner fully powered by sustainable aviation fuel.

(Photo by Bill Abbott via CC BY-SA 2.0)
(Photo by Bill Abbott via CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Virgin Atlantic Logs First Transatlantic Flight on 100% ‘Sustainable’ Jet Fuel

It’s sort of like vegan jet fuel.

On Tuesday, Virgin Atlantic conducted the first transatlantic flight by a commercial airliner fully powered by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). But is it a one-off stunt or a flight of fancy?

That’s a Lot of Carbon

Air travel accounts for roughly 2% of global emissions annually. That may not sound like a lot, but the industry’s yearly total would rank among the top 10 biggest polluting nations in the world, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Similar to the automotive industry, the aviation sector is aiming to reduce fossil fuels and achieve net-zero emissions in the next few decades, but that’s a lot easier said than done.

SAF, often made from tallow, cooking oils and other biomass, has been seen as one potential alternative. But environmentalists view it and Virgin’s taxpayer-funded flight as little more than a gimmick and not a real solution to the problem:

  • SAF isn’t the same as clean air travel. Similar emissions are being released from the plane, but the life-cycle emissions — the carbon produced from capturing, processing, and distributing SAF — are roughly 70% less than that of traditional jet fuel.
  • “One flight on 100% alternative fuel isn’t going to change the fact that 99.9% of aviation fuel is fossil fuel and there’s no great option for feedstock (raw materials) that can be scaled up sustainably.” Cait Hewitt of the UK’s Aviation Environment Federation said about Virgin’s flight.

If You Wanna Fly, You’ve Gotta Burn Something: The consensus is that e-kerosene — hydrogen from renewable electricity combined with the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide — is the only truly green SAF. However, SAFs are generally more than double the price of standard fuel, meaning airlines don’t have the immediate incentive for significant investments. That suggests SAF’s 0.1% global jet-fuel share doesn’t significantly rise anytime soon.