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What Does Virgin Atlantic’s 100% SAF Transatlantic Flight Mean for Net Zero?

The tangible benefits may lie beneath the headline


Today, Tuesday, 28th of November 2023 will go down as a milestone for commercial aviation on the path to NetZero. At 11:30 AM GMT, Virgin Atlantic will finally operate a commercial transatlantic flight (VS100) from London Heathrow (LHR) to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) that’s been over a year in the making.


The airline was awarded the project, along with £1m in funding, in late 2022 by the UK Government to join forces with industry stakeholders and operate the world’s first net zero commercial transatlantic flight. The primary lever of achieving this feat is the use of 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) for both engines of Virgin Atlantic’s 787 Dreamliner, a practice not yet certified for commercial use. The UK Government states that the negative production emissions of SAF can save up to 70% of the lifecycle impact compared to Jet-A, meaning the flight will also be reliant on investment in out-of-sector carbon removals to reach net zero.


According to IBA NetZero's commercial aviation carbon calculator, a flight between LHR and JFK on a Boeing 787-9 usually emits around 128 tCO2e, inclusive of the upstream emissions associated with jet fuel production. Using the lifecycle benefit of SAF and carbon removals, this project aims to showcase the options open to long-haul aviation to decarbonise.


How did we get here?

The 100% SAF nature of the flight represents an impressive feat of stakeholder collaboration, with Boeing and Rolls Royce involved in the physical testing and certification necessary, and the University of Sheffield and ICF involved in calculating a credible value of the lifecycle emissions of the flight. 88% of the 60 tonnes of SAF required is sourced from Air BP, who have produced hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) SAF from used cooking oil in Europe, with the remaining 12% a synthetic aromatic fuel made from corn starch by a US-based producer.


While the flight will serve a useful purpose in testing a blend of two SAF types, questions will be raised about the sustainability of feedstock sourcing, considering the lack of local and global availability of supply to produce HEFA and the contentious sustainability credentials of first-generation biofuels, where a crop is grown and immediately used for fuel production. The latter of which is so contentious, it’s not recognised as a supported pathway in the UK and Europe.


What does this mean for the industry?

Despite the room for discussion over the production of the SAF involved, once VS100 takes off, the focus will switch to a study of the non-CO2 emissions generated. Imperial College London and the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) will undertake an experiment to determine the generation of ice crystals, and contrails, from this new blend of fuels.


Furthering aviation’s understanding of its non-CO2 emissions has come to the forefront in recent years, and while significant progress has been made, the question remains as to whether SAF can show a positive impact on the generation of contrails. The outcomes of this study, along with the industry-galvanising showpiece of the world’s first net zero transatlantic flight, will serve as tangible benefits generated. But it will be long after VS100 touches down at JFK that the industry reaps the rewards.


Learn more about IBA ESG Consulting

Cover image: Virgin Atlantic


Interested in hearing more from our ESG Consulting team? Listen to our recent podcast episode "The Latest in Aviation ESG" below, featuring Phil Seymour and Jeni Stanley.


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