The first ever net zero transatlantic flight will take off from the UK next year, with Virgin Atlantic receiving government funding to fly across the pond using solely sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
In late 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 over 70% compared to conventional fossil jet fuel. This flight is expected to be fuelled by SAF made primarily from waste oils and fats, such as used cooking oil. The use of 100% SAF on the flight, combined with carbon removal through biochar credits – a material which traps and stores carbon taken from the atmosphere – will make the flight net zero. Not only will SAF be key in decarbonising aviation, but it could create a UK industry with an annual turnover of £2.4 billion by 2040, and which supports up to 5,200 UK jobs by 2035.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper : “For decades, flying from London to New York has symbolised aviation’s ability to connect people and drive international progress. 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: “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% 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 honour to pave the way for this important business and leisure route to become even more sustainable.”
This challenge recognises the critical role that SAF has to play in decarbonising 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 decarbonise 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 2022 which sets out our approach for decarbonising 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% SAF blended with kerosene can be used in commercial jet engines. By using 100% SAF, the consortium will demonstrate the potential to decarbonise 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% 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 UK up to be a global leader in the development, production and use of SAF, allowing us to progress towards net zero flying, and creating thousands of green jobs.
The government will introduce a SAF mandate requiring at least 10% 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 advanced fuels fund, and work with the industry and investors to understand how to secure long-term investment into the sector. Along with this ground-breaking flight, these measures will support a growing role for SAF within the future of everyday flying.