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Virgin Atlantic Completes Fully-SAF Transatlantic Flight

The flight is a major milestone towards aviation sustainability.

A Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 Dreamliner seconds from touchdown in Las Vegas. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Virgin Atlantic recently announced it has completed the world’s first-ever transatlantic flight powered entirely by Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) by a commercial airline. The flight comes soon after Gulfstream similarly announced it completed a transatlantic flight based on SAF with a private jet.

“This flight today shows that sustainable jet fuel can be used as a drop-in replacement for jet fuel – and it is the only viable solution for decarbonising long-haul flights,” group chief Richard Branson wrote in a blog post announcing the flight. “A huge well done to the Virgin Atlantic team and all of our partners for coming together and making this happen – now we’ve shown that it can work, it will take industry and governments to make it an everyday reality.”

The flight, bearing the designator Flight 100, flew from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport with a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The operation was approved only after flight tests and analysis earlier this month.

Airlines around the world have been touting Sustainable Aviation Fuels as a logical next-step to reduce their carbon footprints without needing to entirely overhaul their infrastructure since many commercial aircraft can operated with SAF. Some airlines have already flown partly with SAF by blending it with traditional jet fuel. Major carriers like United Airlines and the Air France-KLM group have announced major investments in companies that produce the fuels in order to accelerate the development, testing, production, and use of SAF.

A Virgin Atlantic 787-9 departing London Heathrow. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

“[SAF is] really the only pathway to decarbonising long-haul aviation over and above having the youngest fleet in the sky,” Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss, said. “It is a really momentous achievement.”

Future of SAF in Airline Travel

One of the biggest challenges to the wide implementation of SAF is that it is incredibly energy-intensive to produce. Critics say that producing SAF might not produce much benefit over traditional fuels because of how difficult it is to scale fuel production. In his post, Branson acknowledged that policy changes are necessary to continue encouraging SAF development.

The higher costs of producing SAF will inevitably be passed from manufacturers to airlines and thereby to travelers. Whether this will have an impact on how much people fly will be seen, though it is possible that fuel manufacturers will be able to work the costs down quickly enough for passengers to overlook the ticket increases as temporary.

Equally important to combating the climate crisis, Branson writes, is the development of new, hyper-efficient aircraft made of carbon fibers. Of particular note are the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350, which are made of carbon fibers and are significantly more efficient than the predecessors. While Airbus is also developing aircraft capable of running entirely on hydrogen — one of the most promising fuel alternatives — any future aircraft produced by Boeing are still rumors, so it has yet to be known which sustainability features it will have.

The UK does not have any plants dedicated to producing SAF, though its government intents to have five under construction by 2025. Having the plants available will make using the fuels are available will make it easier for airlines to meet the ambitious targets that governments have set out for carriers, especially in France.

For now, developments of alternative fuels such as SAF and hydrogen will continue. Many airlines aim to be carbon neutral by 2050, which is a year that scientists take to be a “point of no return” if climate change targets are not hit.

John McDermott

Author

  • John McDermott

    John McDermott is a student at Northwestern University. He is also a student pilot with hopes of flying for the airlines. A self-proclaimed "avgeek," John will rave about aviation at length to whoever will listen, and he is keen to call out any airplane he sees, whether or not anyone around him cares about flying at all. John previously worked as a Journalist and Editor-In-Chief at Aeronautics Online Aviation News and Media. In his spare time, John enjoys running, photography, and watching planes approach Chicago O'Hare from over Lake Michigan.

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