Virgin Atlantic has been granted a permit by the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority to conduct a transatlantic flight powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), reportedly for the first time in history.
The airline plans to fly from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport using only SAF, an emissions-free fuel derived from feedstocks such as oilseeds, algae, or agricultural wastes, to name a few. Some airlines have already begun using SAF combined with traditional jet fuels to lower overall flight emissions, but not yet to fully power an aircraft at such a distance.
SAF Flight Follows Testing, Technical Review
According to Virgin Atlantic, SAF can currently be used in jet engines at a maximum blend of 50% without added modifications and may reduce emissions by up to 80% compared to traditional fuels. Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which uses the Trent 1000 engine developed by Rolls Royce, is capable of running totally on SAF and has been permitted for flight after extensive technical reviews and ground testing.
“The Civil Aviation Authority’s permit to fly Flight100 marks a key milestone and a huge achievement for all the teams working towards this historic flight,” said Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss. “Getting to this point has been more than a year in the making and taken radical collaboration across our consortium partners and government. We’re committed to using 10% SAF by 2030, but to get there we need the government to support the creation of a UK SAF industry. We know that if we can make it, we can fly it.”
The flight is expected to take place on Nov. 28, 2023, in order to test and showcase the feasibility of zero-emissions aviation for the future.
Government Support for Airline Decarbonization
In December 2022, Virgin Atlantic was awarded about $1.2 million in U.K. government funding, following the Department of Transport’s intention to support the aviation industry in achieving the first completely SAF-fueled transatlantic flight. The U.K. published its Jet Zero strategy in 2022 as well, including a roadmap towards achieving net-zero aviation by 2050. Part of this framework includes the commitment of having at least five SAF plants in the U.K. under construction by 2025.
SAF is not currently widely used in the aviation industry, representing less than 0.1% of jet fuel volumes at present. However, government incentivization appears to be a crucial step in furthering the emissions-reducing fuel.
In the United States, a bill was proposed earlier this year that would offer tax incentives to the manufacturing and purchasing of SAF, and it has since been signed into law. The U.S. Department of Energy also offers a tax credit for producers of SAF that reduces emissions by over 50%. The recently released Farm to Fly Act also aims to provide standards for SAF made from agricultural products while creating new markets for American farmers, further supporting development of the alternative fuel.