Which Airlines Are Embracing SAF?

The path to airlines using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) has been a long one. The aviation industry has made groundbreaking - if sometimes tentative - steps towards aviation sustainability, from the first SAF-fuelled test flight in 2008, and then the first commercial flight using SAF in 2011. As the industry continues to innovate, we’ve recently seen some historic additions to the SAF journey.

On November 28th 2023, Virgin Atlantic Flight VS100 completed the world’s first transatlantic flight using 100% SAF. The Boeing 787 made the 7h.16m. flight from London Heathrow to New York JFK using a SAF blend of 88% hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) supplied by Air BP, and 12% synthetic aromatic kerosene (SAK) supplied by Virent, a subsidiary of Marathon Petroleum Corporation.

Meanwhile, just a few days prior on November 22nd in Dubai, Emirates Airlines also made history by completing a demonstration flight using an Airbus A380 with one of four engines powered by 100% SAF. By doing so, Emirates and Airbus are continuing to prove the case that drop-in sustainable fuel is a viable alternative to standard jet fuel.

The global aviation industry has pledged itself to some challenging goals over the last few years, specifically in terms of decarbonisation. Airlines and governments are both working towards steep targets, such as net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. To achieve these goals, the industry has widely accepted that significant changes are required, and the subject of how aircraft are fuelled has become a primary concern. 

As such, SAF plays a large part in the potential solution. Over 450,000 flights have now taken off using a mix of SAF and traditional fuels, and more than 50 airlines around the world now have at least some experience with SAF. In terms of the fuel itself, seven technical pathways currently exist in creating types of SAF, which can reduce emissions by up to 80% during its full lifecycle. Over 300 million litres of SAF were produced in 2022, and as more fuel suppliers embrace the change, 2023 and beyond are set to see this figure increase.

However, SAF still only accounts for approximately 0.1% of all jet fuel used worldwide - a figure that has remained largely the same for the last four years. Despite the need to adopt new fuel solutions in order to meet environmental targets, uptake is still slow, with airlines and airports citing multiple factors that hinder them from utilising SAF to the fullest.

The most commonly cited reason is cost. Fuel derived from waste oils often cost 50% more than traditional jet fuel, and power-to-liquid fuels can cost 200% more - a steep increase at a time when global economies are still recovering from a post-pandemic world, not to mention other global challenges and catastrophes. Despite this, governments are moving closer to reducing the costs of using SAF, and airlines are lobbying to allow 100% SAF fueled flights.

In terms of infrastructure, most current SAFs are ‘drop-in’ fuels, designed to be mixed with traditional fuels (currently limited to a maximum of 50%). These fuels require no change or investment from airports, as existing equipment can be used, so no additional spending is required.

But are legislative promises the only thing driving the industry towards SAF? Increasingly, studies show that people (especially young people) are taking their carbon footprint into account when booking flights - and the industry has noted this increasing change in trends. With airlines wanting to live up to their promises and responsibilities, and their desire to continue to attract new eco-conscious customers, what are their fueling plans for the foreseeable future?

The biggest commitment seen so far happened at the World Economic Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition event in September 2021, when 60 companies committed to working together to power global aviation with 10% SAF by 2030. The commitment, which included airlines, airports, fuel suppliers, aviation innovators, and non-aviation companies that rely on air travel, demonstrated a significant shift in fueling plans for a large number of airlines, including British Airways, Delta Airlines, KLM, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic.

Since then, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, British Airways, Finnair, Japan Airlines and Qatar Airways announced in July 2022 that they plan to purchase up to 200 million gallons of ethanol-based SAF per year over five years from renewable fuels producer Gevo. Commencing in 2027, the deal will see these airlines use SAF for several major Californian international airports.

It is understood that the airlines, who form part of the Oneworld Airlines Alliance, will utilise the sustainable aviation fuel for operations in California including San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles International Airports. Delivery of the fuel is expected to commence in 2027, for a five year-term.

Ryanair announced in April 2022 it will operate approximately a third of all flights from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport with a 40% SAF blend, and Cathay Pacific launched their Corporate Sustainable Aviation Fuel Programme through which commercial customers can offset business travel emissions by by contributing to using SAF on passenger and cargo flights from Hong Kong International Airport.

And it’s not just commercial airlines who have taken the SAF plunge - in March 2022, freight airline DHL Express agreed to purchase more than 800 million litres of SAF within the next five years through deals with BP and SAF producer Neste.

Various manufacturing methods for SAF are also seeing investment from all corners of aviation, with JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic, the US Air Force and Boom Supersonic all investing in Air Company, who claim to have developed the first carbon neutral jet fuel derived from captured carbon dioxide, CO2.

And just a few days ago, at the Third International Civil Aviation Organisation Conference on Aviation and Alternative Fuels held in Dubai, ICAO showed continuing commitment to decarbonisation. They agreed to aspire to a reduction of emissions by 5% by 2030, compared to zero cleaner energy use.

Ultimately, no matter what type of fuel is used, or in what amount, the need to use it as economically as possible is (and will continue to be) a driving factor for all airlines. As the industry changes to meet environmental demands, in order to keep fuel costs as low as possible, a change in methodology in how industries use their fuel resources is also required.

LARA magazine suggests that innovative technology could be the answer to ensuring expensive fuels such as SAF are used effectively:

“Airlines, airports and suppliers alike are increasingly investing in technologies to optimise their operations, with fuel management software becoming increasingly used by a number of airlines including low-fare carriers.”
- Elena Lodge, LARA Magazine

At i6, we believe one of the most effective enablers of decarbonisation is to digitalise the entire airport fuel supply chain. Our fuel management technology seamlessly connects the fuel supplier, fuel farm, into-plane operator and airline to track end-to-end fuel movements. This provides key stakeholders with detailed and real-time information with greater operational control and efficiency. For example, airlines using our e-fuelling technology, eHandshake®, benefit from accurate data transmission and optimised refuelling - resulting in average savings of up to 201KG CO2 with every long-haul flight.

Get in touch for more information about how you can digitise your fuelling operations and reduce carbon emissions - or, if your airline is investing in SAF and was not included in this article, let us know so we can include you in future articles.

Transform your fuel management operations today.

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