June 15, 2024

Fuelling innovation

Tom Maynard, Director Global Corporate Sales, Virgin Atlantic, outlines the airline's plans to fly the first 100% SAF transatlantic flight

The climate crisis is the single greatest challenge of our lifetime, and the aviation industry is committed to continue connecting people and trade across the globe, but with an even greater focus on doing so sustainably.

At Virgin Atlantic, we have already invested heavily in transforming our fleet into one of the youngest and most fuel efficient on the transatlantic route and we are now looking to build on our previous pioneering sustainability efforts by delivering the first ever transatlantic flight with 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).

For long-haul travel, SAF represents the industry’s biggest opportunity to decarbonise. In order to do so, capability needs to be built now to demonstrate that today’s engines, a-frames and infrastructure are capable of safely flying using 100% drop-in SAF.

The 100% SAF, transatlantic flight will operate in late 2023 from London Heathrow to New York JFK. We are leading a consortium of best-in-class partners as part of the project, including Rolls-Royce, Boeing, Imperial College London, University of Sheffield, Rocky Mountain, ICF and Institute (RMI).

“For long-haul travel, SAF represents the industry’s biggest opportunity to decarbonise”

The aircraft will be fuelled by 100% SAF, which combined with carbon removals through biochar credits – a material which traps and stores carbon taken from the atmosphere – will counterbalance any residual emissions of the flight.

The pioneering flight aims to demonstrate the ability of UK aviation to reach net zero and prove the capabilities of SAF to help the industry in the research, certification and technology developments required to push for an increase in SAF production and regulatory approvals. In addition to SAF, the consortium has ambitions to deliver ground and flight efficiencies to cover research on the non-CO² effects of flying.

An upscale in SAF production and a change in regulatory approvals is key to meeting net zero by 2050 as part of aviation’s commitment to using 10% SAF by 2030 on the road to this goal. When fully replacing kerosene, SAF can slash lifecycle carbon emissions by over 70% compared to conventional fossil jet fuel. But current fuel specifications are limited to a maximum of 50% SAF blended with kerosene.

“In addition to SAF, the consortium has ambitions to deliver ground and flight efficiencies to cover research on the non-CO² effects of flying”

Even after considering the limited availability of SAF in a production constrained market, there are still a number of complexities. These include resourcing, safety and technical approval processes that need huge amounts of collaboration across the OEM community, internal engineers and external stakeholders, such as CAA and DfT, as well as the scale of the logistics challenge to keep the fuel separate from the rest of the fuel farm.

The sheer number of firsts is also compounded by trying to deliver efficiency savings, contributing to research and development of non-CO² effects of flying – all whilst trying to maintain engagement and relevance with customers.

The challenges are numerous but the consortium brings together the right partners to help deliver with a safety-first approach, working closely with regulators to test and seek relevant approvals along the way.

The process takes time, but cross industry and government action to see this 100% SAF flight take off later this year is key in demonstrating aviation’s net zero future. 

virginatlantic.com