In a groundbreaking initiative, Virgin Atlantic, supported by government funding, undertook the first-ever transatlantic flight by a large passenger plane solely powered by alternative fuels.
Departing from London’s Heathrow and landing at New York’s JFK airport in November, the flight marked a significant stride toward demonstrating the feasibility of a greener aviation sector.
Operated with a Boeing 787, the flight utilised 50 tonnes of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), derived mainly from waste fats (88%) and the byproducts of corn production in the US.
While hailed as an environmental milestone, the flight was a one-time occurrence and did not carry fare-paying passengers.
Sustainable aviation fuels can be sourced from diverse materials such as crops, household waste, and cooking oils. In this case, the SAF components included waste fats and byproducts from corn production.
Approval from the UK Civil Aviation Authority came after thorough testing and analysis, with several key industry players involved, including Rolls-Royce and BP.
The aviation sector, notorious for its challenges in decarbonisation, sees SAF as a crucial tool in achieving net-zero emissions. However, challenges persist, including limited fuel supply and the need for additional technology to meet emissions targets.
While Prime Minister Rishi Sunak celebrated Virgin Atlantic’s achievement on social media, claiming the flight was “net zero,” critics pointed out that planes using SAF still emit carbon.
The industry contends that the “lifecycle emissions” of SAF can be up to 70% lower than traditional fuels.
Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said the airline’s flight on Tuesday was “proving… that fossil-derived fuel can be replaced by sustainable aviation fuel”.
“It’s really the only pathway to decarbonising long-haul aviation over and above having the youngest fleet in the sky,” he told the BBC’s Today programme. “It is a really momentous achievement.”
Despite the positive step, concerns were raised about the current scarcity and higher cost of SAF.
Sir Richard Branson acknowledged that it would take time before there was enough SAF for widespread use.
“But you have to start somewhere,” he said. “And if we didn’t prove it can be done, you would never, ever get sustainable aviation fuel.”
Currently, SAF accounts for less than 0.1% of global aviation fuel consumption and is usually blended with traditional jet fuel at limited ratios.
While SAF is already utilised in blends, it is more expensive than kerosene, and restrictions often limit the blend ratio to 50%. The UK government aims to address this by supporting the construction of dedicated commercial SAF plants, with plans for five such facilities by 2025.
Industry stakeholders view the successful long-haul flight as a noteworthy achievement, but experts caution that SAF alone is not a panacea.
Dr Guy Gratton, associate professor of aviation and the environment at Cranfield University, said: “We can’t produce a majority of our fuel requirements this way because we just don’t have the feedstocks. And even if you do, these fuels are not true ‘net zeros’.”
He said the growing use of SAF had to be treated as “a stepping stone towards future, genuinely net zero technologies”.
“This might be e-fuels [which are manufactured using captured carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide, together with hydrogen], it might be hydrogen, it might be some technologies that we still really only have at the laboratory stage.”
Critics argue that claims of “guilt-free” flying are premature and stress the need for future technologies to truly cut carbon emissions.
The policy director of the Aviation Environment Federation emphasised that, for now, reducing air travel remains the most effective way to mitigate environmental impact.
The UK government, along with the aviation industry, maintains its commitment to achieving “net zero” by 2050, even as passenger numbers continue to rise.
Before boarding the flight, Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “There are those campaigners who want to tell ordinary people that they can’t fly. That’s their view, they’re entitled to it. The government doesn’t agree with them.”
He said using SAF produced about 70% less carbon emissions than traditional fuels “so that is a really big step forward”.
“We are also involved with supporting the industry develop hydrogen and also electric flights for shorter-haul flights, so all of that technology is being developed.”
Mr Harper acknowledged that using SAF was “not the only solution”, but said: “It is a really important step with those other technologies to make sure we can carry on flying and protect the environment.”
Plans include mandating 10% of aviation fuel to be SAF by 2030, with a focus on ensuring affordability and domestic production to meet this target.
Airlines UK, which represents UK-registered carriers, said they need to be able to access enough affordable SAF to meet such a requirement, with as much as possible coming from the UK.
Its boss Tim Alderslade said: “The last thing we want is higher fuel costs for UK passengers compared to the rest of Europe and the US, with worse sustainability outcomes and thousands of new jobs lost overseas.”
The successful transatlantic flight marks a noteworthy step forward, but the road to sustainable aviation is complex and requires ongoing innovation and commitment from both industry and policymakers.
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