Virgin Atlantic is planning to operate the world’s first transatlantic flight powered entirely by ‘sustainable aviation fuel’ (SAF) in November 2023. Jenny Southan reports

This month, Virgin Atlantic and Rolls-Royce conducted a successful ground test of a Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine powered by SAF, which apparently has at least a 70 per cent smaller carbon footprint (across its lifespan) than fossil fuel.

The test marks a key milestone in the airline’s mission to be less harmful to the environment. On November 28, 2023, it will fly the world’s first 100 per cent SAF-powered flight across the Atlantic from London Heathrow to New York JFK on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Fuel suppliers Air bp and Virent will supply the 60 tonnes of SAF required for the SAF, which can be made from used cooking oil and animal fat, and can be blended with conventional jet fuel. By 2030, the is broad consensus that all flights should be powered by at least 10 per cent SAF, but with climate change already getting more acute, critics say this is too little, too late.

Nevertheless, proponents of SAF say it has a fundamental role to play in aviation’s decarbonisation and pathway to Net Zero 2050 (when carbon emissions are balanced out by carbon removal).

Today, SAF represents less than 0.1 per cent of jet fuel volumes and fuel standards allow for just a 50 per cent SAF blend in commercial jet engines. The one-off Virgin Atlantic flight in November will demonstrate the potential of SAF as a 100 per cent drop-in replacement for fossil fuel today.

Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, says: “We need UK government support to create a UK SAF industry to allow for every single flight out of the UK to operate with 100 per cent SAF – if we make it, we can fly it.”
Virgin Atlantic The realisation of the 100% SAF transatlantic flight taking to the skies is a challenging task requiring cross industry collaboration and dedicated project teams working on the research, testing and operations to make it happen.

The Virgin Atlantic led consortium, joint funded by the Department for Transport, includes Rolls Royce, Boeing, University of Sheffield, Imperial College London and Rocky Mountain Institute. The successful bench engine test is a key milestone, however further permissions and safety approvals are required for the flight to take off in November.

Virgin Atlantic and the consortium will leverage the 100 per cent SAF transatlantic flight to further SAF use, as well as addressing other environmental impacts of the sector. The project will demonstrate further reductions in CO2 from operational efficiencies, contribute to research and development into the non-CO2 effects of flying, and provide an end-to-end life cycle analysis of the flight. Any residual CO2 emissions from the flight will be mitigated using innovative carbon removals from biochar projects.