Airlines jockey for
limited sustainable fuel
What’s happening at COP26…
Philip and Ben Elgin
out a slew of sustainable fuel initiatives in the run-up to COP26,
aiming to prove they’re serious about the fight against global
aviation fuel (SAF), a substitute for the fossil-based kerosene
powering today’s jet turbines, is derived from a variety of
ingredients, from waste oils and fats to sugar crops and some trees
and grasses. British Airways operated a
flight to Glasgow, while
will use a SAF blend on
out of London Gatwick airport.
Holdings Inc. committed to buying
1.5 billion gallons
of SAF made from forest and crop waste.
The sudden embrace
of kerosene alternatives makes sense for an airline industry desperate
to avoid another shock after the decimation caused by the Covid-19
pandemic. If scaled quickly, SAF could help airlines fend off calls
for emissions-related restrictions on flying, and clear the way for a
return to growth.
participants are concerned that the publicity is outpacing palpable
“It feels a little
frothy right now,” said Gene
Gebolys, chief executive officer of
one of two companies supplying commercial quantities of SAF in the
U.S. “It can’t be just a press release battle. There’s got to be
A crucial selling
point of SAF is that it offers a way to make immediate progress toward
cutting CO₂ emissions, given more impactful changes like hydrogen- and
electric-powered planes are still on the drawing board. SAF is made
without extracting more fossil fuel, and can be blended for use in
One of the main
challenges is cost. SAF is typically three to four times more
expensive than kerosene, so airlines aren’t buying it in bulk. As a
result, very little is being produced. If
Delta Air Lines Inc.
filled all its planes for one day, the carrier would soak up a year’s
worth of U.S. SAF supply, said CEO
“don’t know if they have a client, and the airlines can’t afford to
pay that much higher level of cost,” Bastian said in a Bloomberg TV
interview. “That’s why we’re working with our people in Washington” on
getting tax credits for SAF fuel blends.
SAF supplies are
extremely limited, with current production estimated to be less
than 0.1% of global jet fuel consumption,
according to BloombergNEF.
That's expected to increase to about 3% of projected demand in 2030,
far short of the targets set by the European Union and the U.K.
will bring down prices, says Chris Raymond,
chief sustainability officer. He says a combination of incentives and
levies on traditional jet fuel could encourage higher SAF usage.
is that, like conventional kerosene, SAF spews carbon dioxide and
other pollutants into the atmosphere. The reductions claimed by
biofuels rely on a lot of complicated math and the idea that the
materials being burned don’t come from extracting fossil fuels
sequestered thousands of years.
life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions depend on the feedstock and the
process of converting it into jet fuel. But some forms risk
generating more carbon dioxide than the conventional fuels they
replace, according to an International Council on Clean Transportation
published in March. For example, fuel derived from municipal solid
waste with high plastic content can produce as much as almost twice
the amount of CO₂ as burning regular jet fuel, the report said.
The money being
spent for SAF would be better targeted toward technologies like
hydrogen and electric propulsion that would greatly reduce
emissions in the first place, said
Chief Executive Officer of low-budget carrier
Wizz Air Holdings Plc.
“I’m not saying
that we are anti-SAF or anything like that,” Varadi said. “But I think
if you are looking for a long-term solution, you have to decarbonize
the engine technology.”
Yet there are few
current alternatives other than drastic cutbacks in flying. Even when
they arrive, electric and hydrogen planes will operate only shorter
flights at first. International Air Transport Association Director
who previously led British Airways parent
expects airlines to continue buying conventional jetliners for another
15 years, and they typically last for two decades or more.
“We have to look
at other options to get us to the net zero position by 2050,” Walsh
said in an interview. “In that time period, sustainable fuels is the
most important thing that we can do.”
combined approach is going to be required, said
Diana Birkett Rakow,
the vice president for public affairs and sustainability for Alaska
Airlines. The U.S. carrier says increasing the use of SAF,
improvements in operations and air traffic management, as well as
buying new, fuel-efficient planes will be a start. Beyond that, it
will rely on propulsion advances and
in startups, along with offsets to help solve the net-zero problem.
“I guess it’s
fairly American to want a silver bullet, but this one’s going to be
step-by-step,” Birkett Rakow said.
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