Virgin Atlantic hails first 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel flight

Virgin Atlantic is due to operate the world’s first transatlantic flight using 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) today.

The Boeing 787 flight, which Virgin Atlantic has christened Flight100, aims to confirm the safe use of SAF as a drop-in replacement for kerosene or jet fuel derived from oil, with airlines arguing SAF is the only viable way to reduce the carbon emissions of long-haul flying in the medium term.

Flight100 is due to depart Heathrow for New York today (Tuesday) following a year-long collaboration by a consortium led by Virgin Atlantic and including Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Imperial College London, the University of Sheffield, consultancy ICF and the Rocky Mountain Institute, in partnership with the UK Department for Transport.

The fuel for the flight is made from waste products and performs like traditional jet fuel but can deliver savings of up to 70% in lifecycle CO2 emissions.

The SAF on Flight100 is a blend of 88% HEFA (Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids) supplied by AirBP and 12% Synthetic Aromatic Kerosene (SAK) supplied by Virent.

The HEFA is made from waste fats and the SAK from plant sugars. SAK is needed in 100% SAF blends for the aircraft engines to function correctly.

Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss said: “Flight100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.

“SAF can be used as a safe, drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel and it’s the only viable solution for decarbonising long-haul aviation.

“We’re proud to have reached this important milestone, but we need to push further. There is simply not enough SAF and to reach production at scale we need to see significantly more investment.

“This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by the government, are in place.”

The airline’s founder Sir Richard Branson said: “Virgin Atlantic has been challenging the status quo and pushing the aviation industry to do better since 1984.

“I couldn’t be prouder to be onboard Flight100 today alongside the teams at Virgin Atlantic and our partners, which have been working to set the flight path for the decarbonisation of long-haul aviation.”

Transport secretary Mark Harper said: “This government has backed today’s flight and we will continue to support the UK’s emerging SAF industry as it create jobs, grows the economy and gets us to Jet Zero.”

Boeing vice president of environmental sustainability Sheila Remes added: “This flight is a key step toward our commitment to deliver 100% SAF-compatible airplanes by 2030.”

Simon Burr, Rolls-Royce group director of engineering, technology and safety, said: “We’re proud our Trent 1000 engines are powering the first ever widebody flight using 100% SAF across the Atlantic.

“Rolls-Royce recently completed compatibility testing of 100% SAF on all our in-production civil aero engine types. The flight represents a major milestone for the entire aviation industry.”

As well as confirming the capabilities of SAF, Flight100 will be used to assess how its use affects the flight’s non-carbon emissions with the support of consortium partners ICF, Rocky Mountain Institute, Imperial College London and University of Sheffield, including the effects of SAF on condensation trails (contrails) and particulates.

All data and research from the flight are to be shared with the industry.

British Airways sustainability director Carrie Harris said: “Sustainable aviation fuel is currently the only realistic low carbon solution for long-haul flights. It is vital that SAF is scaled up and developed in order to create enough supply to enable us to achieve our goal of net zero emissions as soon as possible.”

American Express Global Business Travel global SME executive vice president Jason Geall, who is due on the flight, said: “Operating a 100% sustainable aviation fuel flight on the most lucrative route in business travel will help spur SAF demand and demonstrate the future is now. 

“Corporate investment in business travel is helping kick start the emerging SAF market as companies strive to hit their carbon reduction goals.” 

Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer labelled the flight a “milestone in aviation’s progress towards developing a more sustainable way to fly”.

“Obviously this is just one flight and there is a huge amount of work between a test flight and this becoming the norm,” he said. “To make that a reality we need support from government to develop a domestic industry in sustainable aviation fuels.

“Without this the UK would have to rely on imports; missing out on the jobs and economic value a domestic industry would bring.”

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