Skift Take

Sometimes you need a big, audacious stunt to garner support for sought-after climate policy.

Virgin Atlantic Airways completed a transatlantic flight Tuesday using all sustainable aviation fuel — and whatever you do, do not call it a stunt.

“It’s actually not a stunt at all,” Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss said during an interview in New York Tuesday. “You don’t usually get Boeing, Rolls Royce, the Rocky Mountain Institute, Sheffield University, Imperial College, [and] ICF, to participate in a stunt, which is going to cost them a lot of money.”

“I think this was an important day to show that 100% sustainable aviation fuel, can power flight — a commercial flight [on] a large plane across the Atlantic safely,” he continued.

The all-SAF flight, a Boeing 787-9 from London Heathrow to New York’s JFK, used fuel supplied by AirBP and Virent. It is made from a blend of used cooking oil and plant sugars, and produces a fraction of the carbon emissions of traditional jet fuel.

SAF is viewed by the aviation industry as something akin to the holy grail of its decarbonization efforts. Industry trade group IATA estimates that the fuels will contribute 65% of airlines’ target of net-zero emissions by the middle of the century. SAF, by definition, produces half the emissions of traditional jet fuel and often far less.

But for all of SAF’s emissions-cutting potential, the global supply of it amounts to “virtually nothing,” according to IATA. Last year, roughly 79 million gallons of the fuels were produced while airlines consumed more than 8 billion gallons of jet fuel. SAF prices are 4 to 5 times that of jet fuel.

The global airline industry is no where close to operating all-SAF powered flights on a regular basis. Hence the Virgin Atlantic flight, and others before it, are meant to raise awareness of the need for support development of the fuels.

Pressuring the UK for SAF Support

“I’m also calling on the UK government to do so much more [to provide] legislative certainty so that investors will flock and put their balance sheet to work with price support mechanisms,” Weiss said.

United Airlines undertook a similar SAF-powered flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C., in late 2021 to pressure Congress to include SAF incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act. President Biden signed the bill, including SAF tax incentives, into law in August 2022. And, earlier in November, Emirates flew an Airbus A380 demonstration flight with one engine fueled entirely with SAF.

UK Transport Minister Mark Harper, who was aboard the Virgin Atlantic flight, said Tuesday that the British government is “very committed” to making the transition to SAF happen.

“We’re going to legislate next year for the SAF mandate to say that we have to use 10% sustainable aviation fuel by 2030,” he said at an event in New York after the flight. “We’re putting a significant amount of public money into making sure that we get five commercial, scalable plants in construction by 2025.”

Beyond the 10% mandate, Harper did not say how the UK planned to invest in SAF.

Weiss wants the country to provide some form of price support mechanism to bring the cost of SAF down to near that of traditional jet fuel. This mechanism would be similar to what the UK has previously provided the wind and solar energy industries, he added.

A combination of SAF mandates and financial support are what most airlines are clamoring for. KLM CEO Marjan Rintel has repeatedly called on European Union authorities to follow the lead of the U.S. and provide incentives along with the mandate the bloc passed earlier this year. SAF must make up 2% of all aviation fuel in the EU from 2025, 6% from 2030, and stepping up to 70% by 2050.

U.S. airline executives are also calling on more support from the government to scale production of SAF. JetBlue President Joanna Geraghty earlier in November said the Inflation Reduction Law does not do enough to scale production and bring down the cost of SAF to meet the industry’s emission reduction goals.

A Transatlantic SAF Challenge

“I’d like to issue a new challenge: UK versus U.S. who can get there faster,” U.S. Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg said at the event in New York. She was responding to Harper’s comment that the UK plans to mandate that 10% of all aviation fuel be SAF by 2030.

Whether either country can hit 10% SAF by the end of the decade is an open question. In the U.S., 15.8 million gallons of SAF were produced last year, according a recent Government Accountability Office analysis. That represented a record high and three-fold increase from the year before but still a fraction of a percent of the 17.5 billion gallons of jet fuel U.S. airlines used in 2022. U.S. producers would need to double SAF production annually through the end of the decade to hit Trottenberg’s 10% goal.

In the UK, 6.9 million gallons of SAF was produced last year, according to data from the Department of Transport. That also represents a fraction of a percent of the demand for jet fuel.

The outlook for Harper’s proclamation that the UK will enact a SAF policy next year is clouded by the future of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government. The conservative leader must call a general election by January 2025 but there is speculation that he may do so as soon as May. An election next year could alter the administration’s SAF policy plans.

“He’s made the commitment,” Weiss said of Harper’s statement. “Is it ambitious? It is, but he’s made the commitment.”


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Tags: airlines, climate change, sustainable aviation fuel, virgin atlantic

Photo credit: Richard Branson (left) and Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss (right) at Heathrow airport ahead of the airline's all sustainable aviation fuel-powered flight to New York. (Virgin Atlantic) Virgin Atlantic

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