The first transatlantic flight by a commercial airliner fully powered by “sustainable” jet fuel has taken off from London Heathrow this morning.
The Virgin Atlantic flight, partly funded by the UK government, has been hailed by the aviation industry and ministers as a demonstration of the potential to significantly cut net carbon emissions from flying, although scientists and environmental groups are extremely sceptical.
Airlines have previously flown on a blend of up to 50% of alternative fuels, called sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), and flight VS100 will operate under special dispensation with no paying passengers, using fuel made mostly from tallow and other waste products.
One of those onboard, the transport secretary, Mark Harper, said: “Today’s 100% SAF-powered flight shows how we can decarbonise transport both now and in the future, cutting lifecycle emissions by 70% and inspiring the next generation of solutions.”
Virgin Atlantic said the flight to New York would show that SAF was a safe replacement for normal kerosene jet fuel. The Virgin Atlantic founder and president, Sir Richard Branson, also onboard, said: “The world will always assume something can’t be done, until you do it.”
Airlines see SAF as a critical route to cutting net emissions, because it can be used in existing planes. However, the availability of the fuel now is less than one-thousandth of the total volume of jet fuel used worldwide.
Shai Weiss, the Virgin Atlantic chief executive, said SAF was “the only viable solution for decarbonising long-haul aviation. It’s taken radical collaboration to get here and we’re proud to have reached this important milestone, but we need to push further.
“There’s simply not enough SAF and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment. This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by government, are in place. Flight 100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.”
Harper said the government would “continue to support the UK’s emerging SAF industry as it creates jobs, grows the economy and gets us to ‘jet zero’”.
Five commercial plants to produce SAF in the UK are due to be under construction by 2025. The fuel used on Tuesday was imported from the US and EU.
The flight comes after a year of testing with the engine maker Rolls-Royce and other industry partners. Scientists onboard VS100 will assess the flight’s non-carbon emissions, including contrails and particulates, whose effect on global warming is not fully understood but is believed to be significant.
Campaigners said the government and airlines were making misleading claims for the flight – particularly a Department for Transport announcement that SAFs would “make guilt-free flying a reality”.
Cait Hewitt, the policy director of the Aviation Environment Federation, said: “The idea that this flight somehow gets us closer to guilt-free flying is a joke.”
She said SAF production would be very hard to scale up sustainably, adding: “Hopefully, we’ll have better technological solutions in future but, for now, the only way to cut CO2 from aviation is to fly less.”
Progress worldwide is likely to be slow. Last week nations at the UN’s aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization, agreed at a summit in Dubai to “strive to achieve” a target of reducing the CO2 intensity of jet fuel burnt by 5% by 2030.