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Virgin Atlantic plans to operate a Boeing 787 from London to New York, powered solely by waste oils and fats, a move hailed as a step toward reducing aviation’s significant environmental impact.
Billed as the “world’s first” net zero transatlantic flight, the aircraft will hit the skies in 2023 fueled entirely by what’s known as sustainable aviation fuel.
SAF is an alternative to fossil fuels that uses ingredients like cooking oils and agriculture waste, cutting carbon emissions by an average of 80%, according to IATA, the International Air Transport Association.
In a statement, the UK government, which contributed funds for the project, claimed the transatlantic flight will be totally net zero in terms of carbon output due to the SAF, and because it will offset any emissions through “biochar credits” – payments that support the use of an energy process that results in the safe storage of carbon.
While the flight is likely to be seen as a step in the right direction for aviation, it will do little to win over critics who have said similar one-off projects are aimed more at easing the conscience of passengers. They say the air industry is trying to give the impression it’s on the brink of full sustainability, rather than its stated goal of halving 2005 emission levels by 2050, and that SAF use can still have environmental consequences.
In a statement announcing the flight, Virgin Atlantic CEO Shari Weiss suggested “the research and results” of the pioneering 2023 flight “will be a huge step in fast tracking SAF use across the aviation industry and support the investment, collaboration and urgency needed to produce SAF at scale.”
Virgin Atlantic has yet to confirm when the flight will take place, but announced it’ll be sometime in the coming year.
More sustainable flying
SAF’s not a new invention – it’s actually been around since 2011, and IATA data says that since then, more than 450,000 flights have taken to the skies powered, at least in part, by SAF.
Despite its potential to reduce airplane environmental impact, SAF use is still limited due to costs associated with production and regulatory concerns.
“There’s no real business case for the sector to invest in it at the moment,” Andreas Schafer, a professor of energy and transport at University College London, told CNN Travel earlier in 2022.
Still, one of SAF’s major advantages is it can be used in pre-existing aircraft – like Virgin’s 787 – with little need for expensive modifications.
“This is critical and very beneficial for the aviation industry, because there is no need to invest in new infrastructure or new aircraft, and it’s great for airports too, because they can use the same storage and fueling infrastructure – from that perspective, SAF is excellent,” said Schafer.
Virgin Atlantic’s upcoming flight has also involved plane maker Boeing and engine builder Rolls-Royce.
Virgin’s 787 is installed with Trent 1000 engines, which Rolls-Royce says have previously been proven to fly with a blend of SAF and conventional jet fuel.
Rolls-Royce Head of Sustainability Rachel Everard added that, thanks to the flight, “by the the end of 2023 we will have proven that our whole family of Trent engines and business aviation engines are compatible with 100% SAF.”
Other high profile SAF tests have taken place recently. In March 2022, an Airbus flew an A380 for three hours powered by SAF. In 2021, United Airlines flew one of its aircraft from Chicago to Washington, powered by SAF.
Top photo of a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images
CNN’s Jacopo Prisco contributed to this report