The new year is shaping up to be a momentous one for the aviation industry, as British airline Virgin Atlantic recently announced it will operate the world’s first transatlantic flight to achieve ‘net-zero’ carbon emissions. Scheduled to fly from London Heathrow to New York JFK in late 2023, the flight will be powered solely by sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF.
The airline plans to utilize SAF derived mainly from waste oils (like used cooking oil) and fats, aboard one of its flagship Boeing 787 jets, equipped with Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines. Virgin Atlantic says no plane or engine modifications will be needed for the test flight. Low-carbon SAFs, developed from a range of non-fossil fuel sources, like agricultural waste or cooking oils, are considered “drop-in” fuels—making them compatible with existing aircraft engines and supply infrastructure.
Virgin Atlantic says the use of 100 percent SAF reduces carbon emissions by over 70 percent when compared to conventional jet fuel. The remainder of the flight’s net zero-emissions target—net zero is defined as a balance between both greenhouse gasses emitted and removed—will be met via an investment in carbon-removal credits.
The aim of the flight—which is being supported, in part, by £1 million ($1.22 million) in U.K. government funding—is to help gather data and demonstrate that 100 percent SAF-powered jets are safe and viable, as the global aviation industry moves toward broader decarbonization goals.
Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss said in a statement that the “the research and results,” of the flight “will be a huge step in fast-tracking SAF use across the aviation industry and support the investment, collaboration, and urgency needed to produce SAF at scale.”
The global aviation industry is responsible for more than two percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, and is relying heavily on SAF technology to meet its net zero-carbon emissions goals by 2050, in line with United Nations targets to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
“When you look at 2050 as the goal for net-zero emissions, sustainable aviation fuels will play the biggest role in the decarbonization of aviation,” says Dr. Joshua Heyne, the director of the bioproducts, sciences, and engineering laboratory at Washington State University, whose research expertise is in the development of sustainable aviation fuels.
International Air Transport Association (IATA), a global trade association of airlines, projects that SAF will be behind 65 percent of the 2050 targets, with additional support coming from emerging electric and hydrogen technologies, as well as offset and carbon capture programs.
SAF proponents say the burgeoning industry around the alternative fuel source has further potential to bolster jobs and boost the economy, too.
However, SAF adoption is not without its hurdles. Currently, regulations only permit commercial aircraft to operate on up to 50 percent SAF, blended with traditional jet fuel.
“Virgin Atlantic’s flight powered by 100 percent SAF will hopefully pave the way for regulations to be updated and allow planes to fly on 100 percent SAF versus 50 percent SAF blend at the moment,” says Nicolas Jammes, a spokesperson for IATA.
There are also supply limitations and associated high production costs: SAFs are currently more than twice the price of standard jet fuel, and make up less than 1 percent of jet fuel usage worldwide.
However, momentum is beginning to build. According to the IATA, SAF production increased 200 percent in 2022 over 2021, reaching nearly 80 million gallons. Numerous airlines have recently signed on for new or expanded SAF initiatives, too, including United Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Air France-KLM, Alaska Airlines, Ryanair, among others.
Governmental policies are also helping to drive the shift. As part of its “Jet Zero” strategy, established in July 2022, the U.K. government intends to mandate that at least 10 percent of jet fuel come from SAF by 2030. The European Union, meanwhile, has established a similar target of five percent by the same year. Plus, new E.U. legislation will soon make airlines operating within Europe pay additional fees for using traditional fossil fuels, rather than SAF.
However, some environmentalists caution that sourcing SAFs can come with its own ecological concerns. “Most so-called sustainable fuels are made from agricultural crops that either compete with food crops for land, and drive the destruction of natural ecosystems like forests,” says John Hyland, Greenpeace E.U. spokesperson.
He says that, ultimately, the best way to decarbonize aviation is to fly less. For example, some travelers have begun opting for trains instead of planes on some shorter routes. “The aviation sector has grown hugely over the last few decades, and their carbon emissions have ballooned along with that,” Hyland notes. “The industry uses the promise of 'sustainable' aviation fuels as an excuse to keep growing unsustainably, when the climate emergency requires a reduction in flights—starting with needless short flights and private jets.”
No specific date has been set yet for Virgin Atlantic’s historic test flight, nor have decisions been made about whether passengers will be onboard. But the London to New York pairing marks one of the busiest international airport routes in the world.
“For decades, flying from London to New York has symbolized aviation’s ability to connect people and drive international progress,” said U.K. Transport Secretary Mark Harper in a press statement. “It’s now going to be at the forefront of cutting carbon emissions from flying.” The historic flight will “pave the way for future generations,” according to Harper.
And that’s not just PR speak. “One of the things this flight reminds me of is Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic,” says Heyne, indicating that it is poised to be a particularly significant milestone in aviation history.