World’s first net zero transatlantic flight could take off as early as next year

May 16, 2022

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

The first transatlantic flight powered entirely by recycled cooking oil and other waste could take off as early as next year, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said. 

If the ambitious plan is realised, it would make it the world’s first ever net-zero emissions flight between Europe and America. 

Want more TPG news dropped into your inbox each morning? Subscribe to our daily newsletter!

Shapps announced the trailblazing project during a meeting with airline chiefs in the U.S. 

He said the flight would be the first to use 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), demonstrating the “vital role” SAF can play in decarbonising aviation in line with the government’s ambitious net-zero targets.

“That’s not just great news for the environment, it’s great news for passengers who will be able to visit the Big Apple without increasing damaging greenhouse gas emissions,” he added.

Related: 12 easy ways you can start travelling more sustainably right now

“It’s crucial that we place sustainability at the heart of the aviation industry’s recovery from COVID-19, and I look forward to working with it on this challenge, which will lower the impact flying across the Atlantic has on the planet.”

According to the Air Travel Action Group, flights produced 915 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019 – about 2.1% of all human-induced carbon dioxide emissions.

The aviation industry as a whole, however, produces 12% of emissions from all transport sources — a climate impact the industry is under growing pressure to reduce.

It isn’t only good news for the environment, Shapps added, but also for the U.K. economy. 

It is estimated the SAF industry could bring 5,200 jobs directly to the U.K., on top of a further 13,600 through global exports. The industry is banking on an annual turnover of £2.3bn by 2040.

What exactly is SAF?

Where fossil fuels take millions of years to form underground, SAF is produced from materials that already exist above ground and in our environment (Image by John M Lund Photography Inc / Getty Images)

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is a blanket term used to cover a variety of non-fossil fuel types which are being developed to move aviation into a greener and more environmentally friendly future.

The key challenge for manufacturers is to make them as similar to regular aviation fuel as possible to save having to adapt aircraft or engines to accommodate it. These are known as “drop-in” fuels as they can be easily incorporated into existing airport fueling systems.

Where fossil fuels take millions of years to form underground, SAF is produced from materials that already exist above ground and in our environment.

They include waste gases, crop and forestry residues, household and commercial waste, and even recycled cooking oil.

Related: Are sustainable aviation fuels the future for commercial air travel?

Why? Because they all contain one magic ingredient: carbon.

Crucially, while SAF still releases the same chemicals into the atmosphere as fossil fuels when burned in a plane’s engine, they cut out 80% of the emissions created in the manufacture of jet fuel.

They are not, however, favoured by all airlines as a viable alternative to fossil fuel.

Back in March last year, easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren said SAFs would not fit within the short-haul airline’s business model. “SAFs, and, in particular, power-to-liquid (PtL) will play a role for long-haul, but it is definitely not something we as a short-haul operator would look at as part of our end game [of zero-emissions flying across Europe] at all,” he said.

He suggested that short-haul operators “better go for electric or hydrogen solutions, or a combination of those two,”  because he was sure that aircraft similar in size to today’s short-haul aircraft using those fuel types will soon become available.

Unlocking ‘green’ flight

The British government is not alone in its bid to innovate its way out of the aviation industry’s massive impact on the environment.

In March, for instance, British Airways announced its own plans to power its planes with SAF.

Hailing the move as a “breakthrough moment” for the industry, BA said it had joined forces with Phillips 66 – the renowned Texas rodeo sponsor and owner of the Jet petrol station network in Britain — in an ambitious bid to become the “first airline in the world to use SAF produced on a commercial scale in the UK”.

In BA’s case, SAF won’t replace fossil fuel completely, however. Instead, BA says it will be pumped into the “existing fuel pipeline … [to be] blended with conventional fossil fuel before it reaches the aircraft.”

In March British Airways announced its own plans to power its planes with SAF (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

That same month, Swiss announced its own blueprint to becoming the first airline in the world to power planes by “liquid sunlight.”

The airline, which is owned by Lufthansa Group, has struck a deal with Synhelion, a company that uses solar energy to convert CO2 into a synthetic fuel called syngas.

And that came weeks after Airbus joined the race with a plan to channel its inner Frankenstein to raise the A380 from the dead… by using the jumbo as a test plane for a hydrogen-fuelled engine.

Related: Could the beleaguered A380 be the key to unlocking fossil-free flying?

That plan, if Airbus can pull it off, could transform the craft — or any other plane for that matter — into the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035.

As for the British government’s latest plans, experts are optimistic.

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said: “UK airlines strongly support the development of a UK SAF industry which will play a vital role in helping our sector deliver net-zero emissions by 2050, as we are committed to doing.

“This announcement will provide additional momentum to achieving this and, alongside the recent £180 million in Treasury support for the development of new UK SAF plants, demonstrates the commitment of government to making SAF a key part of the decarbonisation of aviation.

“We now need to turbocharge production in order to build the initial three SAF plants by 2025 and UK airlines have shown real commitment to making this happen with our partnerships with Philipps 66, Velocys and LanzaTech.”

Featured image by Getty Images.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.