Virgin Atlantic Completes Transatlantic Flight with 100% SAF, Eyes Expanding its Use

Virgin Atlantic aircraft flying

(Credit: Virgin Atlantic)

by | Nov 29, 2023

Virgin Atlantic has successfully completed a transatlantic flight powered with 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), becoming the first commercial airline to do so. Also aiming to demonstrate SAF’s viability in decarbonizing air travel, the airline explained a need to invest further in the technology to scale up its use.

The flight, which featured a Boeing 787 and Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engines, flew from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. The SAF used for the flight was made predominantly from agricultural waste products blended with plant sugars and proteins, allowing for 70% fewer lifecycle emissions than conventional jet fuel.

Currently, airlines are allowed to operate on a maximum of 50% SAF combined with conventional jet fuel as a way to lower emissions.

SAF has been identified as the most realistic short-term option for decarbonizing air travel, and the Virgin Atlantic flight aimed to prove the fuel’s ability as a drop-in replacement for conventional jet fuel. One of the identified benefits of the fuel is that currently-used aircraft models may run on the fuel without any modifications to their design.

Flight Contributes to UK’s Jet Zero Initiative, SAF’s Potential to Boost Economy

The flight, named Flight100, was supported by the United Kingdom government, which has set a goal of achieving net-zero air travel by 2050 with its Jet Zero initiative.

“Today’s historic flight, powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel, shows how we can both decarbonize transport and enable passengers to keep flying when and where they want,” said Mark Harper, U.K. transport secretary. “This Government has backed today’s flight to take-off and we will continue to support the UK’s emerging SAF industry as it creates jobs, grows the economy and gets us to Jet Zero.”

U.K. aviation reportedly aims to meet a 10% SAF by 2030 target as well, and Virgin Atlantic said that this goal would be accompanied by economic benefits of over $2.2 billion in gross value added for the country and would generate over 10,000 jobs. The aviation fuel market at large is expected to grow as air travel increases worldwide, marking an opportunity for SAF production to help meet increased fuel demand.

Despite this potential, many are skeptical of SAF’s currently low numbers in commercial air travel, as it only represents 0.01% of overall fuel used, and Virgin Airlines emphasizes that policy and investment will be needed to allow for SAF’s widespread use.

“There’s simply not enough SAF and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment,” said Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss. “This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by government, are in place.”

Cost Barriers for Decarbonizing Aviation Remain

One of the major barriers to the widespread adoption of SAF at present is its comparative cost to conventional fuels — SAF is currently two to eight times more expensive, according to a Deloitte report.

Part of this high cost is the low availability of the fuel as comparatively few SAF production sites currently exist. When United Airlines completed the first commercial flight using 100% SAF from Chicago to Washington D.C. in 2021, United CEO Scott Kirby said it would cost $250 billion to ramp up SAF production to levels needed to meet decarbonization targets.

Some sources even claim that while the flight achievement is an exciting step, it may be misleading to consumers to express that air travel may be done “guilt-free.”

Many environmentalists assert that at present, the only realistic way for consumers to lower their emissions impact is to avoid flying altogether. Private jet users have also come under scrutiny for producing considerably more emissions than average consumers. Earlier this month, business jet manufacturer, Gulfstream, also completed its first transatlantic flight run completely on SAF in order to explore pathways toward decarbonizing private air travel.

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