This article is part of our special report Decarbonising air travel.
Boosting the use of greener jet-fuel is a regulatory challenge but operationally, it is a less complex affair. Airports, airlines and manufacturers have all shown interest in sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) and are starting to use them more and more. Here are some of the success stories so far.
SAFs are chemically identical to conventional kerosene so can be used in the engines of modern airliners and stored in the same tankers. Blends of up to 50% are currently allowed under international standards.
Price and manufacturing capacity are the main hurdles, as SAFs are between two and five times more expensive than kerosene, while production levels are nowhere near high enough yet to satisfy the potential demand of the global industry.
An upcoming initiative from the executive branch of the European Union will aim to stimulate the entire supply chain, possibly by implementing a minimum target for fuel blends across the bloc.
But the aviation sector has already started to board the green jet-fuel bandwagon, as market-leading airlines, aerospace giants and even technology companies are making use of what capacity there already is.
In Europe, Dutch airline KLM and Scandinavia’s SAS are among the most prominent carriers that are using SAFs on a regular basis, while Germany’s Lufthansa took the leap back in 2011. Other airlines have trialled the fuels but are yet to deploy SAFs more frequently.
KLM announced last year that as of 2022 it will use 75,000 tonnes of SAF every year, produced at a new factory near its hub in Amsterdam. It is currently the only carrier to use it on transcontinental flights.
“Using sustainable aviation fuel is currently one of the most effective ways to reduce CO2 emissions in the airline industry,” company CEO Pieter Elbers said when the partnership with Finnish refiner Neste was announced.
The Dutch flyer will use the fuel out of its Schiphol base. Airport CEO Dick Benschop told EURACTIV that the hub has invested in Europe’s first SAF plant and has also put money into a pilot project near Rotterdam that aims to produce fuel from CO2, water and renewable energy.
Airlines are generally free to broker their own fuel deals with suppliers, although there is still a role to play for airports in greening aviation. London’s Heathrow recently announced that it would waive charges for electric aircraft.
Asked if Schiphol is considering something similar for SAFs, Benschop replied they are “considering to stimulate it through our charges, but there are more options. We haven’t made our mind up yet.”
Scandinavian offers flygskam-wary travellers another option: passengers can choose to pay extra for their flights, similar to how other carriers allow frequent flyers to offset their emissions, although these payments are used to buy blocks of SAF for use on other flights.
Further afield, non-European airlines have also started using the greener fuels. Japan’s ANA, the country’s main carrier, started using SAFs in October and is the first airline to operate flights out of Japan using them.
“While COVID-19 has forced us to make adjustments, we remain committed to meeting our sustainability goals,” said ANA executive Yutaka Ito. The airline insists that sustainability certificates show that life-cycle CO2 reductions will top 90% compared with kerosene.
Tech giant Microsoft, meanwhile, will pay extra for employee flights between its Redmond, Washington, headquarters and destinations in California, as part of a deal with Alaska Airlines. Microsoft aims to go carbon-neutral by 2030.
“We hope this sustainable aviation fuel model will be used by other companies as a way to reduce the environmental impact of their business travel,” said Microsoft’s Judson Altshoff. In a statement, both firms said they hope the deal will “send a positive price signal”.
Builders back better
The global aerospace duopoly of Airbus and Boeing is also backing cleaner fuels more and more, although the former sees a future beyond the combustion engine, having recently unveiled plans to develop hydrogen-fuelled aircraft by 2035.
As of 2016, Airbus has started offering its airline customers the option of fuelling their new jets with SAFs for their delivery flights. In October, SAS took delivery of three new planes that were filled with a 10% blend.
In July, Airbus started offering the service from its Hamburg plant. The first delivery of aircraft using SAFs flew across the Atlantic and were carbon-neutral when combined with an offsetting scheme.
The European aerospace firm is also driving the market in other ways. Indirectly, its newer generation of efficient engines makes SAF uptake technologically possible, as the more advanced tech makes higher blends perfectly feasible.
Directly, Airbus has started fuelling its fleet of massive ‘Beluga’ transport aircraft – specially designed cargo planes that ship components, wings and even fuselages between the firm’s vast network of factories – with green fuel on select routes.
US rival Boeing, hit hard by both COVID-19 and the ongoing headache of the MAX grounding scandal, has also ramped up its efforts as part of its long-running ecoDemonstrator project.
In September, an Etihad 787 was fuelled with a 50/50 blend of SAF and kerosene, the maximum currently allowed, for a test flight across the US. The green fuel was produced from non-edible plant material grown in the desert.
Etihad CEO Mohammad Al Bulooki called the flight a “monumental step forward for the sector to prove the viability of producing a 50/50 blend of SAF at a high volume.”
World Economic Forum expert Christoph Wolff explained to EURACTIV that the Middle East carriers and hubs have an important role to play in the global landscape, given the region’s importance in long-haul transit flights.
Airlines are generally in agreement then, and if the price of SAFs can be reduced to a comparable level with kerosene, by deploying clear long-term regulatory measures, there is little standing in the way of an enthusiastic uptake.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]