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From London to New York: First transatlantic trip on 100% sustainable fuel takes off

28 November 2023

Taking the world one step closer to jet zero, the first flight powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel is flying from London to New York today.

Image: PA Media
Image: PA Media

Virgin Atlantic’s historic flight on 100 percent Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) has taken off from London Heathrow to New York JFK today (28 November), marking the culmination of a year of radical collaboration, by a Virgin Atlantic-led consortium. Contributing organisations include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Imperial College London, University of Sheffield, ICF and Rocky Mountain Institute, in partnership with the Department for Transport.

The aim of the flight is to demonstrate the capability of SAF as a ‘safe drop-in replacement’ for fossil-derived jet fuel and to prove that it is compatible with today’s engines, airframes, and fuel infrastructure.

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is a key player in the journey toward decarbonising long-haul aviation. It will be crucial in helping the industry to achieve net zero – or ‘jet zero’ – by 2050. 

Made from waste products, the fuel, delivers CO2 life cycle emissions savings of up to 70 percent, whilst performing like the traditional jet fuel it replaces. 

Celebrating this significant milestone for the aviation industry, Sir Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Atlantic, said: “The world will always assume something can’t be done, until you do it. The spirit of innovation is getting out there and trying to prove that we can do things better for everyone’s benefit.

“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.”

While other technologies, such as electric and hydrogen, remain decades away, SAF can be used now. Today, SAF represents less than 0.1 percent of global jet fuel volumes and fuel standards allow for just a 50 percent SAF blend in commercial jet engines. 

Reaching jet zero by 2050 will therefore not be achieved through the innovations of one consortium alone. The aim of Flight100 is to prove that the challenge of scaling up production is one of policy and investment, and industry and the Government must move quickly to create a thriving UK SAF industry.

As well as proving the capabilities of SAF, Flight100 will assess how it affects the flight’s non-carbon emissions, with the support of consortium partners ICF, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), Imperial College London, and the University of Sheffield. 

The research will improve scientific understanding of the effects of SAF on contrails and particulates and help to implement contrail forecasts in the flight planning process. 

Data and research will be shared with industry, and Virgin Atlantic will continue its involvement with contrail work through RMI’s Climate Impact Task Force, which is part-funded by Virgin Unite. 

Shai Weiss, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Atlantic, commented: “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.”

The HEFA is made from waste fats, while the SAK is made from plant sugars, with the remainder of plant proteins, oil and fibres continuing into the food chain. SAK is needed in 100 percent SAF blends to give the fuel the required aromatics for engine function. 

To achieve jet zero by 2050, the innovation and investment needed across all available feedstocks and technologies must be harnessed to maximise SAF volumes, as well as continue the research and development needed to bring new zero-emission aircraft to market. 

Image: PA Media
Image: PA Media

“It’s taken radical collaboration to get here and we’re proud to have reached this important milestone, but we need to push further,” urged Weiss.

“There’s simply not enough SAF and it’s clear that in order 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.”

Already operating one of the youngest and most fuel and carbon-efficient fleets in the sky, Flight100 builds on the Virgin Atlantic’s 15-year track record of working on developing SAF at scale. 

However, the airline believes that industry and the Government must now work together in order to create a UK SAF industry and meet aviation’s 10 percent SAF by 2030 target. This will bring significant social and economic benefits – an estimated contribution of £1.8 billion in Gross Value Added to the UK and more than 10,000 jobs, Virgin Atlantic claims.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “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.”

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