The Milestone Trip Is The First For A Commercial Airliner
More airlines are implementing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to reduce emissions. The International Energy Agency says that in 2022, 2% of global emissions came from aviation. A steady wave of post-pandemic travel has increased the number of flights leaving airports. Virgin Atlantic made history in November when it flew its first-ever 100% SAF-powered transatlantic flight.
A Boeing 787 with Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines journeyed from Heathrow in London to JFK Airport in Queens, NY, on Nov. 28. Flight100, as it was known, is a product of years of research by a team of aviation experts and engineers from Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Imperial College London, the University of Sheffield, ICF, and the Rocky Mountain Institute.
Virgin’s fuel is made from hydro-processed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) and synthetic aromatic kerosene (SAK).
The HEFA, making up 88% of the mixture, was made from waste fats. The SAK — the remaining 12% — is synthesized from plant sugars, proteins, fibers, and oils.
Company founder Sir Richard Branson flew aboard Flight100.
“Virgin Atlantic has been challenging the status quo and pushing the aviation industry to never settle and do better since 1984,” he remarked after the trip. “Fast forward nearly 40 years, that pioneering spirit continues to be Virgin Atlantic’s beating heart as it pushes the boundaries from carbon fiber aircraft and fleet upgrades to sustainable fuels.”
Photo Courtesy Virgin Atlantic
“I couldn’t be prouder to be onboard Flight100 today alongside the teams at Virgin Atlantic and our partners, which have been working together to set the flight path for the decarbonization of long-haul aviation,” he continued.
SAF can save up to 70% of aviation emissions while performing exactly like traditional jet fuel. The consortium that helped engineer this jet will also research the effects of non-carbon emissions in the atmosphere from travel. The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Contrail Impact Task Force will focus their efforts here.
Virgin Atlantic has an ambitious plan to net zero by 2050. Corporate sustainability goals are set for 2026, 2030, and 2040 to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The company hopes to have 100% SAF-compatible planes by 2030.
It joined the U.K.’s Jet Zero Council and is a founding member of Sustainable Aviation, another U.K.-based sustainable action firm.
Significant funds were invested to modernize Virgin’s air fleet, boasting some of the youngest aircraft in the skies today. Most Virgin Atlantic jets are 7 years old or younger, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 20% before SAF implementation.
Only 0.1% of the world’s airlines use SAF in some capacity.
This trip serves as a symbol of the true power of SAF. If it can make the six-hour transoceanic journey from London to New York, that bodes well for Virgin’s contemporaries.
“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,” Shai Weiss, Virgin Atlantic’s CEO, said in a statement. “This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by government, are in place. Flight100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.”
Photo Courtesy Virgin Atlantic
The U.K. government has shown a commitment to SAF when it comes to decarbonization. It pledged to finance this net-zero flight in December 2022, coming through with its promise a year later. More than £180 million has gone toward accelerating SAF production, testing, and commercialization over the next three years.
“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,” Mark Harper, U.K. transport secretary, said in a statement.
In the private jet sector, Gulfstream announced it completed its own 100% SAF-powered transatlantic flight. In November, a G600 charter jet left Savannah, GA, landing at Farnborough Airport in England. This aircraft was powered by two Pratt & Whitney PW815GA engines. The fuel was produced by World Energy and made from 100% HEFA.
“One of the keys to reaching business aviation’s long-term decarbonization goals is the broad use of SAF in place of fossil-based jet fuel,” Mark Burns, Gulfstream president, said in a press release. “The completion of this world-class flight helps to advance business aviation’s overarching sustainability mission and create positive environmental impacts for future generations.”