Trailblazing Transatlantic Flight Fuelled Only by Sustainable Fuel Lands in US

A pioneering transatlantic journey marked the first instance of a large passenger plane, exclusively fuelled by alternative sources, touching down in the United States. Virgin Atlantic operated the flight, originating from London’s Heathrow and concluding at New York’s JFK airport. Supported by government funding, this milestone flight is heralded by airlines as evidence that a more sustainable approach to air travel is viable.

While the achievement underscores progress in environmentally friendly aviation, challenges persist, notably in the availability of alternative fuels and the necessity for additional technologies to meet emissions targets. Notably, this specific flight, facilitated by Virgin Atlantic, was a unique occurrence and did not carry paying passengers.

Henry Smith of the Conservative party, who was onboard, lauded the journey as a “significant UK aviation achievement.” Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), derived from diverse sources like crops, household waste and cooking oils, powered the Boeing 787, which was laden with 50 tonnes of SAF for this particular flight. The SAF used comprised 88% waste fats and the remainder from corn production waste in the US.

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The approval of the flight by the UK regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, earlier in the month followed rigorous testing and analysis. Notable contributors to the project included Rolls-Royce and BP. Although the aviation industry faces challenges in achieving decarbonisation, SAF is considered a crucial tool to reduce net emissions.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak celebrated Virgin Atlantic’s accomplishment on social media but faced criticism for labelling the flight as “net zero.” Despite planes using SAF emitting carbon, the industry contends that the “lifecycle emissions” of these fuels can be up to 70% lower.

Virgin Atlantic’s CEO, Shai Weiss, emphasised the significance of proving that sustainable aviation fuel can replace fossil-derived fuel, stating that it represents a momentous achievement. However, he acknowledged the current insufficient supply of SAF and anticipated that flight prices might rise due to the higher cost of these fuels.

Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, acknowledged the gradual progress required before SAF becomes widely accessible. He emphasised the necessity of starting somewhere to demonstrate the feasibility of sustainable aviation fuel.

While SAF is currently used in limited quantities, representing less than 0.1% of global aviation fuel consumption, the industry sees the first long-haul flight using 100% SAF as a major milestone. Experts caution that while SAF is a crucial step, it is not a panacea and future technologies like e-fuels or hydrogen must be explored for genuine net zero solutions.

Cait Hewitt from the Aviation Environment Federation criticised the notion of “guilt-free” flying, emphasising the need to explore better technologies. Government officials and industry leaders, however, remain optimistic about achieving “net zero” by 2050, with SAF playing a vital role. The UK government aims for 10% of aviation fuel to be SAF by 2030, but challenges, including cost considerations and feedstock limitations, underscore the complex journey toward sustainable aviation.


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