The first transatlantic flight powered only by sustainable fuels, operated by Virgin Atlantic, is set to take off and will fly from London’s Heathrow to New York’s JFK airport at 11:30 GMT on Tuesday morning (November 28, 2023).
The flight, supported by government funding, demonstrates that a greener way of flying is possible. However, a lack of supply remains a challenge, and other technology will be needed to hit emissions targets.
Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) can be made from various sources, including crops, household waste, and cooking oils.
For this flight, a Boeing 787 will be filled with 50 tons of SAF, with 88% derived from waste fats and the rest from the wastes of corn production in the US.
The aviation industry is seen as particularly difficult to decarbonise, but airline bosses view SAF as the single most effective way to bring its net emissions down to zero.
The “lifecycle emissions” of these fuels can be up to 70% lower. SAF is already used in small amounts, blended with traditional jet fuel, but accounts for less than 0.1% of the aviation fuel consumed around the world.
There are no dedicated commercial SAF plants in the UK, although the government aims to have five under construction by 2025, supported by grant funding.
Airlines see the first long-haul flight using 100% SAF as a significant milestone, but experts say such fuels are not a magic bullet.
The UK government also plans to require 10% of aviation fuel to be SAF by 2030. Airlines UK, which represents UK-registered carriers, must be able to access enough affordable SAF to meet this requirement, with as much as possible coming from the UK.