Was the First Transatlantic Flight Using All Sustainable Fuel Actually Sustainable?
A recent Virgin Atlantic flight might not be as big of an environmental win as it initially seems.
This week, Virgin Atlantic completed the first transatlantic flight in which an airplane used "100% sustainable aviation fuel" to power the journey, according to Reuters. That means that the flight didn't use any traditional fuel, as many flights that use some sustainable aviation fuel continue to do. The flight departed from London and landed in New York City, and was celebrated by the airline as a major step toward reaching climate goals for the airline industry.
On the surface, the idea that a plane could use all sustainable fuel sounds like great news. As we know, the airline industry is terrible for the environment. A 2020 report from NOAA showed that aviation is responsible for 3.5% of all drivers of climate change linked to human activity. In fact, data from Climate Watch in that same year determined that the transportation sector is behind only one other sector—electricity and heat— in terms of contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions. We need a less environmentally harmful airline industry, as soon as possible.
But Virgin Atlantic's SAF might not be as big of a part of that needed change as we'd like to think. The Royal Society, a group of world renowned and trusted scientists, said in a report that these fuel alternatives will not be enough to even begin to address aviation's contributions to climate change. One of the first concerns is that many fuel alternatives aren't sustainable and are actually using "equivalent resources that would be required for that option to replace fossil jet fuel."
Virgin founder Richard Branson acknowledged that this is a small step, to his credit. "It's going to take a while before we can get enough fuel where everybody's going to be able to fly. But you've got to start somewhere," Branson told Reuters before boarding the plane before its transatlantic flight.
The Guardian reported that Cait Hewitt, the policy director for the Aviation Environment Federation, had a much more concise response to the use of SAF on the Virgin Atlantic flight. "The idea that this flight somehow gets us closer to guilt-free flying is a joke," Hewitt reportedly said.
Hewitt, much like scientists with the Royal Society, both pointed to one of the big challenges of sustainable fuel: It can't be produced at scale right now. There is no clear path for how to reduce the airline industry's overall dependence on fossil fuels, even if a few flights here and there partially rely on sustainable fuel. In the US alone, there are an average of 45,000 flights per day, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Yet another environmental group also blasted the optics of the "100% sustainable aviation fuel" flight. Stay Grounded, a science and people-powered group advocating for the reduction in flying and its harmful impact on the environment, called the whole situation "greenwashing." Greenwashing typically refers to when a company spends more money effort on marketing themselves as environmentally-friendly, rather than on actually reducing their environmental impact. Think, BP, the oil company, having a sustainability director and a sustainability page on its website.
"The aviation sector's current attempts to promote 'sustainable' flights is a greenwashing distraction from the urgent need to reduce flights," Magdalena Heuwieser from Stay Grounded, said in a statement. "While public focus is on this one seemingly green flight, there are 100,000 daily flights using fossil fuels. Fuel substitutes are only a tiny drop in a fossil fuel ocean. They are nowhere close to being scalable in the necessary time frame to avoid climate collapse. What is urgently needed is to reduce the burning of fossil jet fuels, which means reducing flights wherever possible."
If you're curious, you can learn more about the process of making and using sustainable fuel and alternative fuels at Energy.gov. And if this sustainable fuel conversation has you thinking about how you can reduce your traveling environmental impact, consider taking a bus or train on your next adventure.
I think the best way to understand this first flight, which carried a handful Virgin Atlantic executives and British government officials, is the return flight. After making a symbolic first journey across the ocean with SAF, the return flight home for everyone from New York to London just used regular old jet fuel.