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  • The U.K. Department for Transport

Virgin Atlantic to make transatlantic flight on 100% SAF with UK government funding

What the U.K. government is calling the first-ever net-zero transatlantic flight will take off from London next year, with Virgin Atlantic receiving government funding to fly across the pond using solely sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

In 2023, one of Virgin Atlantic’s flagship Boeing 787s, powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines, will take off from London Heathrow and make the journey to New York’s John F Kennedy Airport—a journey made by thousands of people for business, family and leisure every week. But this will be no ordinary journey.  

When fully replacing kerosene, SAF can slash lifecycle-carbon emissions by more than 70 percent compared to conventional fossil-jet fuel. This flight is expected to be fueled by SAF made primarily from waste oils and fats, such as used cooking oil. The use of 100 percent SAF on the flight, combined with carbon removal through biochar credits—a material that traps and stores carbon taken from the atmosphere—will make the flight net zero.

Not only will SAF be key in decarbonizing aviation, but it could create a U.K. industry with an annual turnover of £2.4 billion (USD$2.9 billion) by 2040, and which supports up to 5,200 U.K. jobs by 2035.

“For decades, flying from London to New York has symbolized aviation’s ability to connect people and drive international progress,” said Transport Secretary Mark Harper. “It’s now going to be at the forefront of cutting carbon emissions from flying. Not only will this flight pave the way for future generations, but it will demonstrate just how much we can achieve when we work together on a shared goal—bringing together some of the best businesses and academics in the world and led by a British airline.”

Shai Weiss, Virgin Atlantic CEO, added, “As an airline founded on and committed to innovation, we’re proud to lead a cross-industry consortium of partners to make aviation history by operating the first-ever 100 percent SAF flight across the Atlantic. Virgin Atlantic’s inaugural flight in 1984 was to New York and today it continues to be one of our most popular routes. It will be an honor to pave the way for this important business and leisure route to become even more sustainable. This challenge recognizes the critical role that SAF has to play in decarbonizing aviation and the urgent collective action needed to scale production and use of SAF globally. The research and results will be a huge step in fast-tracking SAF use across the aviation industry and supporting the investment, collaboration and urgency needed to produce SAF at scale. Our collective ambition of net zero by 2050 depends on it.”

Aviation is one of the hardest sectors to decarbonize and without urgent collaborative action it could be one of the highest-emitting sectors for greenhouse gases by 2050. To tackle this, the government published the Jet Zero strategy in July, which sets out its approach for decarbonizing the sector and champions SAF as one of the main tools for achieving Jet Zero.

Challenges remain, however, including the need to scale up SAF production and the existing limit on how much SAF is permitted in jet engines by current fuel specifications. Today, a maximum of 50 percent SAF blended with kerosene can be used in commercial-jet engines. By using 100 percent SAF, the consortium will demonstrate the potential to decarbonize long-haul routes and bring us a step closer to net-zero aviation.

It comes hot on the heels of the world’s first sustainable fuel military transporter flight using 100 percent SAF, completed by the RAF last month using the iconic Voyager aircraft.

Other challenges preventing a higher uptake of SAF include high fuel-production costs, technology risk at commercial scale and feedstock availability. To address these, the government is working to set the U.K. up to be a global leader in the development, production and use of SAF, allowing the country to progress towards net-zero flying, and creating thousands of green jobs.

The government will introduce mandate for SAF requiring at least 10 percent of jet fuel to be made from sustainable sources by 2030 to create secure and growing demand, continue to invest in a domestic SAF industry through the £165 million (USD$200 million) advanced fuels fund, and work with the industry and investors to understand how to secure long-term investment into the sector. Along with this groundbreaking flight, these measures will support a growing role for SAF within the future of everyday flying.

“Congratulations to Virgin for winning the net-zero transatlantic flight fund competition,” said Rachael Everard, head of sustainability at Rolls-Royce. “This represents an incredible milestone for the entire aviation industry in its journey towards net-zero carbon emissions. We are incredibly proud that our Trent 1000 engines will power the first-ever flight using 100 percent SAF across the Atlantic. SAF will play such an important role in decarbonizing long-haul flight in particular and is a key element of our sustainability strategy. The Trent 1000 can already be flown with a 50 percent blend of SAF on commercial flights and by the end of 2023 we will have proven that our whole family of Trent engines and business-aviation engines are compatible with 100 percent SAF.”

Sheila Remes, vice president of environmental sustainability with Boeing, said, “Boeing is proud to support the Department for Transport and Virgin Atlantic in this endeavor. Our longstanding sustainability partnership with Virgin dates back to the historic 2008 commercial SAF test flight on a Boeing 747. Together, as we add another SAF ‘first’ to our partnership and to the benefit of the industry, we know we are one step closer to a sustainable future of flight that will have zero climate impact.”

As well as delivering cleaner skies, the development of a domestic industry for the production of SAF has the potential to improve fuel security and support thousands of green jobs. In 2020, it was estimated that a U.K. SAF industry could generate a gross value added (GVA) of up to £742 million (USD$901 million) annually and support up to 5,200 U.K. jobs by 2035. A further 13,600 jobs could be generated from the growing market for SAF through global exports—helping to level up the U.K. and boost the economy.

Delivering the transatlantic flight will help to gather the data needed to support ongoing and future work to test and certify higher blends of SAF and its non-CO2 impacts, while exploring how operational-efficiency improvements, flight optimization and carbon removals can contribute to achieving net-zero flights—not just in the U.K., but for the global aviation industry. 

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