Virgin Atlantic SAF flight ‘milestone’ claim contested by environmental group

Virgin Atlantic’s flight between Heathrow and New York using 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) last week was hailed as “a milestone” by industry leaders, but that view is contested by aviation environmental groups.

Rob Griggs, policy and public affairs director at industry body Airlines UK, insisted: “It was a significant milestone. It showed a glimpse of the future. It demonstrated this technology works, that it’s safe, but it also highlighted there are huge challenges.”

He told the Travel Weekly Sustainability Summit in London: “We owe huge congratulations to Virgin Atlantic and the consortium that made it happen. SAF is going to have to do the heavy lifting in reducing aviation emissions, particularly for the next couple of decades before hydrogen and other technologies come in.

“To make that happen we need volumes of SAF available at a cost that airlines can afford.”

However, Cait Hewitt, policy director at the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), denied the flight provided “a glimpse of the future”, saying: “I wish it did. I wish it was possible to have some kind of green fuel we could just drop into aircraft and carry on flying without worrying about climate change. We have no objection to this as a scientific test to look at how this fuel operates. [But] we object to presentation of this flight as a turning point, as showing we’re close to ‘guilt-free flying’. Because we’re decades away from a genuine zero-emissions flight that could cross the Atlantic.”

The fuel on last week’s flight was made mostly from used cooking oil and Hewitt noted: “That is a waste already in use in other applications. By definition, a waste-based fuel can’t be scaled up sustainably. We have 99.9% kerosene used in the aviation industry globally. Less than 0.1% is any kind of alternative fuel. It’s going to be really hard to scale that up.”

Griggs conceded the fuel used “is the least scalable SAF and probably has less lifecycle benefits [than alternatives].”

But he argued: “The SAFs we want to make in the UK are second-generation fuels from waste carbons and other types of organic waste that are harder to process but more scalable.”

Related Articles

Emirates to restart Edinburgh flights in November

BA resumes Abu Dhabi flights after four years

British Airways raises London-Barbados capacity