- Written by Katie Austin
- Transport correspondent
The first transatlantic flight of a large airliner powered solely by alternative fuels will soon take place.
The plane, operated by Virgin Atlantic, is expected to depart from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York’s JFK Airport at 11:52 GMT.
Airlines believe the flight, backed by government funding, proves it is possible to find a greener way to fly.
But fuel shortages remain a challenge, while other technologies will be needed to meet emissions targets.
This flight is the only one of its kind so far, and does not carry passengers who pay the flight fare.
So-called sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) can be made from a variety of sources, including crops, household waste and cooking oils.
For this flight, the Boeing 787 will be filled with 50 tons of SAF. Two types are used, 88% derived from waste fat and the remainder from waste from corn production in the United States.
After testing and analysis, the flight was approved by the UK Civil Aviation Authority earlier this month. A number of companies are involved in the project, including engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce and energy giant BP.
Decarbonizing the aviation industry is particularly difficult, but airline chiefs view the SAAF as the most effective tool available to help reduce its net emissions to zero.
Airplanes still emit carbon when using SAF, but the industry says the “life cycle emissions” of this fuel can be up to 70% lower.
Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, said the company’s flight on Tuesday “proves… that fossil-derived fuel can be replaced with sustainable aviation fuel.”
He told the BBC’s Today programme: “It’s really the only way to decarbonise long-haul aviation, as well as having the smallest fleet in the sky.” “It is a truly momentous achievement.”
However, he said there were not enough SAF currently and added that due to the high cost of fuel, flight prices would eventually rise.
Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson admitted it would “take a while” before there were enough SAFs for everyone to use.
“But you have to start somewhere,” he told the BBC. “And if we don’t prove it can be done, you’ll never get sustainable aviation fuel.”
SAF is actually used in small quantities, blended with conventional jet fuel, but it represents less than 0.1% of jet fuel consumed worldwide.
It currently costs more than kerosene, and is produced in relatively small quantities. Airplanes are typically only allowed to use up to 50% in the mix.
There are no dedicated commercial SAF plants in the UK, although the government’s target is to have five under construction by 2025, supported by grant funding.
Airlines see the first long-haul flight of a large passenger aircraft using 100% SAF as a significant achievement. But experts say these fuels are not a magic bullet.
“We can’t produce the majority of our fuel needs this way because we don’t have the feedstocks. Even if we did, these fuels would be available to us,” said Dr Guy Gratton, associate professor of aviation and environment at Cranfield University. “Net zeros” is incorrect.
He said the increasing use of SAF should be treated as a “stepping stone towards true net zero technologies of the future”.
“This could be electronic fuel [which are manufactured using captured carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide, together with hydrogen]”It could be hydrogen, or it could be some technology that we still have only at the laboratory stage.”
Policy director at campaign group Aviation Environment Federation, Kate Hewitt, said the idea that the flight meant the UK was closer to “guilt-free” flying was a “joke”.
She said there may be better technology in the future to reduce carbon emissions, but for now, the only way to achieve that is to “fly less.”
UK and industry ministers have insisted they believe “net zero” by 2050 can be achieved as passenger numbers increase.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper told the BBC: “There are those activists who want to tell ordinary people that they can’t fly. That’s their view, and they have a right to that. The government doesn’t agree with them.”
Using SAF produced about 70% fewer carbon emissions than conventional fuel, “so this is a really big step forward,” he said.
“We are also involved in supporting industry to develop hydrogen and electric flights also for short-haul flights, so all this technology is being developed.”
Harper acknowledged that using SAF “wasn’t the only solution,” but said: “It’s a really important step with those other technologies to make sure we can continue to fly and protect the environment.”
The UK government plans to require 10% of aviation fuel to be used by the SAF by 2030.
British Airways, which represents UK-registered airlines, said it should be able to access enough Sudanese air forces at reasonable prices to meet this requirement, while supplying as much as possible from the UK.
Its chairman, Tim Alderslade, said: “The last thing we want is higher fuel costs for UK passengers than in the rest of Europe and the US, with worse sustainability outcomes and thousands of new jobs lost abroad.”
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