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First of its kind: Onboard the Virgin Atlantic sustainable aviation fuel flight to NY

OVER THE ATLANTIC OCEAN – If you were on Virgin Atlantic Flight 100 from London to New York on Tuesday, you could be forgiven for thinking it was just a typical flight.

It wasn’t. Virgin’s Flight 100 was the world's first transatlantic flight using 100% sustainable aviation fuel on a commercial jet and garnered the airline and its partners a prize of 1 million pounds from the British government for their efforts. The flight occurred with relatively little pomp and circumstance, and with standard cabin service, it was like a regular slog across the Atlantic on a Boeing 787.

That was the whole point.

“This flight is super important because it’s showing us that we can go all the way,” Alastair Blanshard, sustainable aviation lead at the consulting firm ICF, one of the partners that helped organize the flight, told USA TODAY. “It’s easy to show that a technology works in a laboratory, but to show that it works 24 hours a day for 20-plus years is a very different challenge.”

While Virgin Atlantic’s demonstration flight may have shown that more sustainable aviation is technically possible, executives and airline experts onboard acknowledged that the industry isn’t ready to convert to SAF across the board tomorrow.

Flight100, Virgin Atlantic’s world first 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) transatlantic flight by a commercial airline is fuelled ahead of its take off from London Heathrow to New York JFK on Tuesday 28 November 2023.
Flight100, Virgin Atlantic’s world first 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) transatlantic flight by a commercial airline is fuelled ahead of its take off from London Heathrow to New York JFK on Tuesday 28 November 2023.

Is sustainable aviation fuel safe?

Safety seemed to be one of the biggest questions on everyone’s mind before the plane took off. Current regulations only allow airlines to fly with 50% sustainable aviation fuel or less on revenue flights, so Virgin’s 100% SAF flight required special approval from regulators on both sides of the Atlantic and was not allowed to carry paying passengers.

Those onboard were confident things would be fine, but some expressed skepticism before the flight took off. One industry executive in the business class cabin told his colleagues he felt it was “a little bit like the Titanic” as everyone was settling in, and the founder of the Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson, said in a speech after the flight that he saw some white faces on fellow passengers as departure neared.

Needless to say, Flight 100 made it across the Atlantic without incident, and that was also the point.

“We knew coming in today that we’d gone through all the safety checks needed to make this as safe as any other flight,” Holly Boyd-Boland, Virgin Atlantic’s sustainability lead and vice president of corporate development, told USA TODAY.  “What we had to do for the flight today from a regulatory perspective is demonstrate the fuel’s performance.”

Those safety checks required months of experimenting with the exact fuel blend and testing on the ground to prove to regulators that it would perform just like traditional petroleum-based jet fuel.

The view out the window from Virgin Atlantic flight 100.
The view out the window from Virgin Atlantic flight 100.

When can I take a sustainable aviation fuel flight?

Not any time soon.

“I don’t think you’re going to see that in the next 10, 15 years,” Boyd-Boland said. “What today’s flight test demonstrates is that the regulatory cap we have at the moment is something we can look at again.”

But even if the technology is ready for prime time, the production capacity hasn’t quite caught up.

“Right now, SAF production is really scarce,” said Corneel Koster, Virgin Atlantic’s chief customer and operating officer. “It needs to scale up about 150 times, is what we calculated, to be able to hit the 10% mandate by 2030.”

British regulators plan to require airlines to fly with 10% SAF on all flights by 2030, and that’s still far shy of the 100% SAF blend used on Tuesday’s flight.

“We are in early days for sure, but we are flying in the right direction and we just took off,” Federica Berra, senior vice president at Air BP, one of the fuel suppliers for the flight, told USA TODAY.  “Everyone in the industry has collaborated to make this happen.”

Dave Kettner, president and general counsel at Virent, the other fuel supplier for the flight, agreed.

“It’s all about scale. It’s the big talk in the industry now. How can you get sustainable aviation fuel into the market?” he said. “We need to all be able to work together to understand how do you bring this new market into reality?”

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How else can flying be more eco-friendly?

Fuel burn is a significant contributor to flying’s overall climate impact, but it’s not the only thing.

The contrails airplanes produce also contribute to warming temperatures, and Flight 100 was also used to study that phenomenon.

“It’s about how you fly the plane. You plan your routes, and while some of those are easier to change and some are tricky, at least it’s not a solution that requires completely new engines or a new way of traveling,” said Thomas Koch Blank, managing director for climate aligned industries at the Rocky Mountain Institute, one of the research partners on the flight. “We don’t need air balloons or whatever” to make flying better for the environment.

Kettner from Virent said that because SAF can burn more efficiently than traditional jet fuel, it may also be more eco-friendly from the perspective of maintenance and fuel loading.

“We’re hearing word that the engines on the plane are running cooler, which is good because then that does engine longevity,” he said. “From our other demonstrations, we’ve also seen that fuel efficiency is better, so you can also burn less fuel.”

Virgin’s Koster said that while the airline was excited to be at the forefront of SAF flying for a day, they’re not planning to hide what they’ve learned from others.

“Anything that is learned in the testing or the runup to the flight on certification, anything that is learned today from analyzing this flight, its profile, it’s emissions, on the ground, end to end, anything that gets learned gets shared transparently with the industry and anyone that wants to see it,” Koster said, acknowledging that all stakeholders need to work together to address the climate impacts of flight.

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at zwichter@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What it was like onboard Virgin Atlantic's SAF flight to New York