Virgin Atlantic operates 100 per cent SAF transatlantic flight

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Virgin Atlantic has operated the first transatlantic flight powered by 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The airline’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner departed London Heathrow for New York JFK International at 1130 on 28 November 2023, under the label ‘Flight100’.

Commercial aircraft are currently limited to a maximum blend of 50 per cent SAF and 50 per cent conventional jet fuel, but this flight will mark the first time that a commercial airline has operated a 100 per cent SAF-fuelled transatlantic flight.

Virgin aims to prove that SAF is a “safe drop-in replacement for fossil derived jet fuel”, meaning that it can be used on the current engines and aircraft.

The SAF used on this flight will be a blend of 88 per cent hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) and 12 per cent synthetic aromatic kerosene (SAK), supplied by Air bp and Virent. The former is made from waste fats while the latter is made from plant sugars.

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approved the flight earlier this month following successful ground testing of running the Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engine which powers the Dreamliner aircraft.

A Virgin Atlantic led consortium – jointly funded by the Department for Transport and including Rolls-Royce, Boeing, the University of Sheffield, Imperial College London and Rocky Mountain Institute – has been involved in making the transatlantic flight possible.

While the flight is a step in the right direction to decarbonising air travel, the occasion is accompanied by calls for the scaling up of SAF production through policy and increased investment.

As it stands, SAF represents less than 0.1 percent of global jet fuel volumes, and yet the UK government is aiming for 10 percent of aviation fuel to be SAF by 2030.

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As the flight is a proof of concept there are no paying passengers onboard. Among the guests are the UK government’s transport secretary, Mark Harper, Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss, and Virgin’s founder Sir Richard Branson.

Shai Weiss, CEO at Virgin Atlantic, said: “Flight100 proves that sustainable aviation fuel can be used as a safe, drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel and it’s 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 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 the government, are in place. Flight100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.”

Sir Richard Branson added:

“Virgin Atlantic has been challenging the status quo and pushing the aviation industry to never settle and do better since 1984. Fast forward nearly 40 years, that pioneering spirit continues to be Virgin Atlantic’s beating heart as it pushes the boundaries from carbon fibre aircraft and fleet upgrades to sustainable fuels.

“I couldn’t be prouder to be onboard Flight100 today alongside the teams at Virgin Atlantic and our partners, which have been working together to set the flight path for the decarbonisation of long-haul aviation.”

Branson has also published an article on the flight to celebrate the occasion.

Transport secretary Mark Harper also commented: “Today’s historic flight, powered by 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel, shows how we can both decarbonise transport and enable passengers to keep flying when and where they want. “This government has backed today’s flight to take-off and we will continue to support the UK’s emerging SAF industry as it creates jobs, grows the economy, and gets us to Jet Zero.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak published a statement on LinkedIn once the flight had departed. For our feature looking at developments in SAF, and the challenges facing the aviation industry in scaling up its use.