World first 100% SAF transatlantic flight sets sights for takeoff

Virgin Atlantic staff stand in front of a Rolls-Royce engine.
Photo Credit: Virgin Atlantic

A Virgin Atlantic led consortium confirms the world’s first 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) flight across the Atlantic will fly on November 28, 2023, departing from London Heathrow to New York John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Virgin Atlantic and Rolls-Royce have now successfully conducted a ground test of the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine using a blend of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).

This significant milestone paves the way for the world’s first-ever 100% SAF flight from London Heathrow to New York JFK on a Boeing 787, scheduled to take off on November 28, 2023.

A milestone in sustainable aviation

Virgin Atlantic’s commitment to finding more sustainable ways to fly and its mission to achieve Net Zero by 2050 have led to this momentous endeavor.

The airline already operates one of the most fuel and carbon-efficient fleets on transatlantic routes, and this upcoming flight builds on its 15-year track record of leadership in promoting SAF usage.

The collaboration between industry leaders, including Rolls-Royce, Boeing, the University of Sheffield, Imperial College London, and the Rocky Mountain Institute, under the guidance of Virgin Atlantic, has been instrumental in bringing this vision to life.

Virgin Atlantic will fly the world’s first 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) transatlantic flight on November 28, 2023 from London to NYC. Photo Credit: Virgin Atlantic


The potential of 100% SAF

Sustainable Aviation Fuel, known as SAF, plays a crucial role in the aviation sector’s decarbonization journey towards Net Zero by 2050.

Compared to traditional jet fuel, SAF typically delivers CO2 life cycle emissions savings of over 70%, making it a compelling eco-friendly alternative.

However, despite its advantages, SAF currently represents less than 0.1% of total jet fuel volumes, and commercial jet engines can only accommodate up to a 50% SAF blend as per fuel standards.

The one-of-a-kind Virgin Atlantic flight scheduled for November seeks to demonstrate the full potential of SAF as a 100% drop-in replacement for fossil fuel, a significant step towards greener aviation.

By using SAF exclusively for this transatlantic journey, Virgin Atlantic aims to highlight the viability of SAF in today’s aircraft engines, airframes, and fuel infrastructure. This milestone flight is expected to inspire further research, investment, and adoption of SAF in the industry.

Efforts and challenges

The realization of the 100% SAF transatlantic flight has required extensive collaboration between various stakeholders and dedicated project teams working on research, testing, and operational aspects.

The UK Department for Transport has joint-funded the Virgin Atlantic-led consortium, which has brought together major players from the aviation sector.

While the successful bench engine test marks a crucial achievement, further regulatory permissions and safety approvals are necessary before the flight can take off.

Beyond the Flight

Virgin Atlantic and the consortium recognize that the historic transatlantic flight is just the beginning of their efforts to advance sustainable aviation.

Beyond showcasing the potential of SAF, they are committed to addressing other environmental impacts of the aviation sector.

The project aims to achieve additional CO2 reductions through operational efficiencies, invest in research and development concerning non-CO2 effects of flying, and conduct an end-to-end life cycle analysis of the flight’s environmental impact.

 To offset any remaining CO2 emissions from the flight, innovative carbon removal methods like biochar projects will be employed.

Virgin and Rolls-Royce comments

Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, expresses the significance of the 100% SAF transatlantic flight, hailing it as a historic moment in aviation’s path to decarbonization.

He emphasizes that SAF is the most readily available solution for the industry to reduce its carbon footprint, but the lack of sufficient supply poses a challenge.

 He calls for the UK government’s support in creating a robust UK SAF industry to enable every flight out of the UK to operate with 100% SAF, which aligns with their 2030 targets.

Rob Watson, President of Civil Aerospace at Rolls-Royce, shares the pride and excitement of using their Trent 1000 engines to power the pioneering flight.

Confirming the successful ground test using the chosen 100% SAF blend instills confidence in the engine’s performance and operation ahead of the historic flight.

 Watson believes that this achievement represents a momentous milestone for the entire aviation industry’s journey towards achieving net zero carbon emissions.

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By Len Varley - Assistant Editor 5 Min Read
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