A Virgin Atlantic passenger jet flying from London to New York powered by 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) took off on Tuesday, with the aviation world closely monitoring the flight.
It marks the first time a commercial airline has flown long haul on 100 percent SAF.
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The flight follows the successful transatlantic crossing by a Gulfstream G600 business jet using the same fuel last week.
As the world decarbonises, airlines are banking on fuel made from waste to reduce their emissions by up to 70 percent, enabling them to keep operating before electric and hydrogen-powered air travel becomes a reality in the decades to come.
Tuesday’s flight, which took off at 11:49GMT and arrives at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport at around 19:50GMT, is operated by a Virgin Boeing 787 powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines.
Virgin Atlantic’s billionaire founder Richard Branson, the airline’s chief executive Shai Weiss, and Britain’s Transport Minister Mark Harper were reportedly all on board.
There were no paying passengers or cargo on board what Virgin dubbed Flight100.
SAF is key to reducing emissions
The flight comes days before the start of COP28 climate talks in Dubai on Thursday.
SAF is already used in jet engines as part of a blend with traditional kerosene, but after successful ground tests, Virgin and its partners Rolls-Royce, Boeing, BP and others won permission to fly using only SAF.
Aviation accounts for an estimated 2-3 percent of global carbon emissions. SAF is key towards reducing those emissions, but it is costly and accounts for less than 0.1 percent of total global jet fuel in use today.
The fuel used to power Tuesday’s flight is mostly made from used cooking oil and waste animal fat mixed with a small amount of synthetic aromatic kerosene made from waste corn, Virgin Atlantic said.
Many European airlines – including Virgin-owned British Airways, and Air France – have said they want to be using 10 percent SAF by 2030, and the industry’s goal of “net zero” emissions by 2050 relies on that share rising to 65 percent.
Yet the 2030 target looks challenging given SAF’s small volumes and its high cost, right now about three to five times as much as regular jet fuel.