Is flying on blended fuel the answer?

BANGKOK 28 February 2018: By 2025, a billion travellers could have flown to their favourite holiday destinations on an aircraft powered by a mix of jet and sustainable fuels.

It’s now 10 years since the first flight took off using blended fuel and the International Air transport Association says developments have reached a stage where it can now predict 1 million flights annually will use a mix of jet fuel and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by 2020. IATA say the goal is to have uplifted 1 billion passengers on planes using blended fuel by 2025.

That’s a big difference to the few hundred passengers who joined a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 that flew from London to Amsterdam, 24 February 2008, with sustainable aviation fuel in just one of its engines.

The flight demonstrated the viability of drop-in biofuels, which can be blended with traditional jet fuel, using existing airport infrastructure. A flight completely powered by sustainable fuel has the potential to reduce the carbon emissions by up to 80%.

IATA says the momentum for sustainable aviation fuels is now unstoppable.

“From one flight in 2008, we passed the threshold of 100,000 flights in 2017, and we expect to hit 1 million flights during 2020. But that is still just a drop in the ocean compared to what we want to achieve. We want 1 billion passengers to have flown on a SAF-blend flight by 2025. That won’t be easy to achieve. We need governments to set a framework to incentivize production of SAF and ensure it is as attractive to produce as automotive biofuels,” said IATA’s director general and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac.

A number of airlines, including Cathay Pacific, FedEx Express, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Qantas, and United, have made significant investments by forward-purchasing 1.5 billion gallons of SAF.

Airports in Oslo, Stockholm, Brisbane and Los Angeles are already mixing SAF with the general fuel supply.

Based on the present uptake trajectory it is anticipated that 500 million passengers will have flown on a SAF-blend powered flight by 2025.

But IATA believes that if governments help the sustainable fuel industry to scale-up its production, it is possible that a billion passengers could experience an SAF flight by 2025.

IATA is asking for more incentives to increase the fuel supply.

They include:
Allowing SAF to compete with automotive biofuels through equivalent incentives;
Loan guarantees and capital grants for production facilities;
Supporting SAF demonstration plants and supply chain research and development;
Harmonized transport and energy policies, coordinated with the involvement of agriculture and military departments.

But some sources of biofuels for land transport have been criticized for their lack of genuine environmental credentials.

Critics say the cultivation of bio-fuels divert land use that should be used to grow staple foods rather than plants for fuel, while the promise of profit encourages widespread deforestation. They say the farming techniques and the loss of natural forest makes the fuel unsustainable.

In response, IATA’s CEO emphasised strongly the determination of the airline industry to only use truly sustainable sources for its alternative fuels.

“The airline industry is clear, united and adamant that we will never use a sustainable fuel that upsets the ecological balance of the planet or depletes its natural resources,” he said.

That’s a big leap of faith. Do airlines and the aviation industry have a track record for keeping their pledges on environment issues?

The assertion “that we will never use a sustainable fuel  that upsets the ecological balance of the planet,” could easily be challenged. “Never” is the operative word and that might come back to bite IATA.