Aviation Chiefs Warn Net Zero Goals Could Threaten Air Travel Industry

ByTravelling For Business

June 3, 2024
Virgin Atlantic reveals findings from 100 per cent SAF flight

In 2021, airlines confidently pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, buoyed by their survival through the Covid pandemic. However, three years later, industry leaders are increasingly anxious about meeting this goal due to the slow progress in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) production.

Last year, Virgin Atlantic showcased the feasibility of SAF with the world’s first 100% SAF-powered transatlantic flight. Despite this milestone, Holly Boyd-Boland, Virgin’s vice president for corporate development, warned, “As things stand, there is not going to be enough SAF to meet our goal of Net Zero 2050. Production will need to be scaled up 80 or 100 times to reach 10% SAF by 2030, requiring urgent government action.”

The scarcity of SAF is set to dominate discussions at IATA’s annual meeting in Dubai. Currently, SAF accounts for just 0.2% of jet fuel use, but UK carriers must increase this to 10% by the decade’s end to comply with government mandates. The global aviation sector is similarly committed to achieving net zero by 2050, as agreed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in 2021.

While other industries make significant strides towards net zero, aviation risks becoming an outlier. The automotive industry is progressing with electric vehicles, and the power sector is shifting away from coal towards wind, solar, and nuclear energy. In contrast, aviation is at least a decade away from developing hydrogen-powered short-haul planes, with long-haul flights likely reliant on fossil fuels if SAF does not become a viable alternative.

John Strickland, an aviation consultant and former British Airways network planner, highlighted the industry’s challenges: “The industry is being increasingly challenged, particularly in Europe. It needs to shout about its value in a way that resonates, whether that’s its economic contribution or the importance of interacting with other cultures.”

The “flight shaming” movement, popularised by activists like Greta Thunberg, has influenced eco-conscious travellers to consider alternative modes of transport, such as rail. This trend underscores the urgency for the aviation industry to demonstrate its commitment to sustainability.

Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss has vocally criticised both the oil industry and governments for not supporting the aviation sector in meeting its environmental commitments. Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce CEO Tufan Erginbilgic asserts that engine manufacturers are advancing as swiftly as possible, with innovations like the Ultrafan model, which aims to burn 10% less fuel and be fully SAF-compatible.

Erginbilgic also emphasised the need for synthetic SAF production using green hydrogen, derived from water via electrolysis powered by renewable energy or modular nuclear reactors. However, even if adequate SAF production were achieved, Weiss warned that airfares could rise significantly, with a return trip to New York potentially costing an additional £40 due to SAF prices being six times higher than kerosene.

A mechanism to stabilise SAF prices in the UK is not expected until 2026, further delaying substantial production and exacerbating industry frustration. This concern is growing just as airlines anticipate a record summer for travel, underscoring the immediate and long-term challenges the industry faces.

As airlines navigate the path to net zero, the industry’s leaders are calling for decisive government action and broader support to ensure the transition does not cripple air travel. The stakes are high, with the future of global connectivity and the industry’s economic viability hanging in the balance.