Virgin Atlantic: the first 100% sustainably fuelled flight

Richard Branson himself commented on the latest news of Virgin Atlantic’s 100% sustainably fuelled transatlantic flight from London to New York City

Virgin Atlantic believes everyone can take on the world, only now it’s working towards doing it more sustainably. The aviation industry has been in talks for some time about carbon reduction and was further spurred on by the introduction of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which reduces emissions from entire flight journeys by up to 80%. 

Further, Virgin Atlantic is also looking at means of reducing emissions through aircraft innovation, operational changes, and building a partnership with Vertical Aerospace for a fleet of electric vertical take-off-and-landing (eVTOL) aircraft. 

But the company has also seen great triumph in terms of adopting sustainable fuel as it recently set one of its jets on a maiden flight using low-carbon fuel. 

The aircraft in flight was a Boeing 787, which is powered by Rolls Royce motors and marks the first time that an aeroplane has taken to the skies from Heathrow, London, to John F. Kennedy, New York, for a transatlantic flight with 100% SAF in its tank to significantly reduce the impact.

Shai Weiss, Chief Executive Officer, Virgin Atlantic, says: “Flight100 proves that Sustainable Aviation Fuel can be used as a safe, drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel and it’s the only viable solution for decarbonising long haul aviation. It’s taken radical collaboration to get here and we’re proud to have reached this important milestone, but we need to push further.

“There’s simply not enough SAF and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment. This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by the Government, are in place. Flight100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.”

The flight marks a major triumph for Sir Richard Branson’s business as its aviation arm takes a great stride towards carbon neutrality. The Founder himself says: “The world will always assume something can’t be done, until you do it. The spirit of innovation is getting out there and trying to prove that we can do things better for everyone’s benefit.

“Virgin Atlantic has been challenging the status quo and pushing the aviation industry to never settle and do better since 1984. Fast forward nearly 40 years, that pioneering spirit continues to be Virgin Atlantic’s beating heart as it pushes the boundaries from carbon fibre aircraft and fleet upgrades to sustainable fuels.” 

A great triumph for a small percentage of carbon emissions

As important as it is to reduce the emissions of all industries, aviation accounts for 2 - 3% of overall global greenhouse gases (GHGs). Nevertheless, this effort is a triumph in the grand scheme of things and couldn’t be timed any better as COP28 kickstarts in Dubai this week. 

The use of SAF drop-in fuel is more impactful than is immediately recognised. Creating a product that can be used in place of conventional fuel eliminates the need to decommission planes when switching over to new products. It’s also worth noting that international electric transport is nowhere near commercial use, if not impossible. While electrified aircraft are great for national trips, international flights require much more robust power options. 

Boeing and Rolls Royce being key stakeholders in the recent event, SAF seems to be their focus for overseas travel alongside Virgin Atlantic and other major airlines. 

“In 2008 Virgin Atlantic and Boeing completed the first commercial SAF test flight on a 747 and today we will accomplish yet another significant milestone utilising a 787 Dreamliner,” says Sheila Remes, Vice President of Environmental Sustainability, Boeing. “This flight is a key step toward our commitment to deliver 100% SAF-compatible aeroplanes by 2030. As we work toward the civil aviation industry’s net-zero goal, today’s historic journey highlights what we can achieve together.”

“We are incredibly proud that our Trent 1000 engines are powering the first ever widebody flight using 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel across the Atlantic today. Rolls-Royce has recently completed compatibility testing of 100% SAF on all our in-production civil aero engine types and this is further proof that there are no engine technology barriers to the use of 100% SAF,” says Simon Burr, Group Director of Engineering, Technology & Safety, Rolls-Royce plc. “The flight represents a major milestone for the entire aviation industry in its journey towards net zero carbon emissions.”

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