- Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) reduces carbon emissions by 80% compared with conventional jet fuel.
- However, safety regulators currently cap the amount of SAF used in jet fuel blends.
- Limited availability of SAF makes it far costlier than traditional fuel; supporters hope next year's flight will boost production.
The first transatlantic flight burning solely sustainable fuel, a London-to-New York trip via Virgin Atlantic Airlines, will take place next year.
The UK's Department of Transport announced it will fund Virgin Atlantic's flight from London's Heathrow Airport to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Combined with the use of carbon removal credits, the flight will target net-zero carbon emissions.
The flight could herald meaningful progress for the global aviation industry's commitment to reduce carbon emissions while proving to regulators that flights using only sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) are as safe as flights burning fossil fuels. SAF reduces carbon emissions by 80% compared with traditional jet fuel but remains far costlier because of limited production.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade group for the world's airlines, last year committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. The association's 300 members account for 83% of all global air travel, which in turn accounts for 2-3% of all global carbon emissions.
Current global safety regulations, though, cap the use of SAF in the total fuel mix for commercial jets at 50%. Kerosene typically makes up the remaining jet fuel blend.
U.K. government and Virgin Atlantic officials said they hope next year's planned flight shows the viability of using SAF -- primarily made with agricultural, forestry and food waste -- exclusively for commercial flights.
"The challenge recognizes the critical role that SAF has to play in decarbonizing aviation and the urgent collective action needed to scale production and the use of SAF globally," said Shai Weiss, Virgin's Atlantic's CEO. "The research and results will be a huge step in fast-tracking SAF use across the aviation industry ... our collective ambition of net zero by 2050 depends on it."
Commercial airlines have blended SAF with kerosene and other fossil fuels since 2011, but production does not yet occur on a scale yielding significant carbon reduction progress. Currently, SAF accounts for just one of every 10,000 gallons of fuel used by commercial jets globally and costs about four times as much as conventional jet fuel.
Global SAF capacity, primarily from a handful of small producers, totaled just 26 million gallons as recently as 2021. But the IATA predicts the number of producers will increase to 100 by 2025, helping increase annual global SAF production to 7.8 billion gallons by 2030.
Next year's planned Virgin Atlantic flight represents just the latest attempt at using solely sustainable fuels for large commercial jet purposes. Earlier this year, Airbus completed a three-hour test flight of its A380 jumbo jet fueled entirely by SAF comprising cooking oil and other waste fats.