The first large transatlantic passenger flight by an airliner using purely sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) should be landing in New York shortly, and while a vote of confidence from PM Rishi Sunak may well be the last thing anyone would want right now, that’s what Sheffield University got when Sunak took to Twitter as the flight left Heathrow.
The uni, alongside Rolls Royce, who developed the engines, Virgin Atlantic, who operated the flight and Boeing – no prizes for guessing their role – were all singled out for praise by the PM who, coming across as natural and charismatic as ever, posted a video to educate social media users about the sustainable technology.
Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, Transport Secretary Mark Harper and Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss were among the passengers on the flight, which did not carry fare-paying travellers.
The Civil Aviation Authority reviewed various aspects of the flight before granting an operating permit, including analysing ground tests with an engine running on 100% Saf.
Virgin Atlantic was awarded £1m by the government last year to plan and operate the flight to demonstrate the effectiveness of SAF, which is seen as vital to reduce the aviation industry’s carbon emissions. It is, however, currently several times more expensive to produce than conventional jet fuel.
SAF is made from sustainable sources, such as agricultural waste and used cooking oil, meaning its production involves using about 70% less carbon. It can be used in jet engines to a maximum blend of 50% with kerosene without the need for any modifications.
US company Gulfstream Aerospace operated the first transatlantic flight powered by 100% Saf earlier this month using a business jet. Virgin Atlantic’s flight is the first of its kind by a large passenger aircraft.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast earlier Harper said: “This is a really big step forward. It’s because we want to make sure, this government wants to make sure, that ordinary people can continue flying cost-effectively and get around the world. We saw how much people wanted to do that.
The Department for Transport (DfT) has optimistically predicted that the flight will “usher in a new normal for international travel” and make “guilt-free flying a reality.”
Not everyone is convinced, however. Cait Hewitt, policy director of campaign group Aviation Environment Federation, said: “Saf represents around 0.1% of aviation fuel globally and will be very hard to scale up sustainably. Hopefully, we’ll have better technological solutions in future but, for now, the only way to cut CO2 from aviation is to fly less.”
Under the DfT’s Saf mandate, at least 10% of fuel used by airlines in the UK must be made from sustainable feedstocks by 2030.