Virgin Atlantic, with Rolls-Royce engines, makes first 100% SAF flight from London to New York

Virgin Atlantic's Flight 100 being fuelled with SAF Photo by Virgin Atlantic

Airliner Virgin Atlantic’s Flight100 – a Boeing 787 using aircraft engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce’s Trent 1000 engines – on November 28 departed London for New York across the Atlantic Ocean using 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

The flight marked the culmination of a year of radical collaboration to demonstrate the capability of SAF as a safe drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel, compatible with today’s engines, airframes and fuel infrastructure, said Virgin Atlantic in a statement.

The milestone flight was made possible by a Virgin Atlantic-led consortium, including Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Imperial College London, University of Sheffield, ICF and Rocky Mountain Institute, in partnership with the UK Department for Transport, Rolls-Royce said.

“SAF has a significant role to play in the decarbonisation of long-haul aviation, and pathway to Net Zero 2050. The fuel, made from waste products, delivers carbon dioxide lifecycle emissions savings of up to 70%, while performing like the traditional jet fuel it replaces,” the company said.

Further, while other technologies such as electric and hydrogen remain decades away, SAF can be used now. SAF represents less than 0.1% of global jet fuel volumes currently and fuel standards allow for just a 50% SAF blend in commercial jet engines.

Flight100 will prove that the challenge of scaling up production is one of policy and investment, and industry and government must move quickly to create a thriving UK SAF industry, the companies said.

The SAF used on Flight100 is a unique dual blend of 88% hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) supplied by aviation fuel supplier Air bp and 12% synthetic aromatic kerosene (SAK) supplied by US bio-based fuels and chemicals company Virent.

The HEFA is made from waste fats while the SAK is made from plant sugars, with the remainder of plant proteins, oil and fibres continuing into the food chain. SAK is needed in 100% SAF blends to give the fuel the required aromatics for engine function.

To achieve Net Zero 2050, the innovation and investment needed across all available feedstocks and technologies must be harnessed to maximise SAF volumes, while the research and development needed to bring new zero emission aircraft to market must continue, the companies added.

Additionally, as well as proving the capabilities of SAF, Flight100 will assess how its use affects the flight’s non-carbon emissions with the support of consortium partners ICF, Rocky Mountain Institute, Imperial College London and University of Sheffield.

The research will improve scientific understanding of the effects of SAF on contrails and particulates and help to implement contrail forecasts in the flight planning process. Data and research will be shared with industry, and Virgin Atlantic will continue its involvement with contrail work through the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Climate Impact Task Force, which is part-funded by Virgin Unite, both companies said.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce recently announced that it has proved all its in-production civil aero engine types are compatible with 100% SAF. This fulfils a 2021 commitment to demonstrate there are no engine technology barriers to the use of 100% SAF, it highlighted.

“Virgin Atlantic is committed to finding more sustainable ways to fly, taking action across every part of the journey. Already operating one of the youngest and most fuel and carbon efficient fleets in the sky, Flight100 builds on the airline’s 15-year track record for leading on the development of SAF at scale,” the airliner said.

“Collectively, industry and government must go further to create a UK SAF industry and meet aviation’s 10% SAF by 2030 target, capitalising on the significant social and economic benefits it will bring, including an estimated contribution of £1.8-billion in gross value added to the UK and more than 10 000 jobs,” the company said.

“Flight100 proves that SAF can be used as a safe, drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel, and it is the only viable solution for decarbonising long-haul aviation. It has taken radical collaboration to get here and is an important milestone, but the industry needs to push further,” said Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss.

“There is not enough SAF, and it is clear that there needs to be significantly more investment to reach production at scale. This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by government, are in place,” he said.

“We are proud that our Trent 1000 engines are powering the first-ever widebody flight using 100% SAF across the Atlantic today. Rolls-Royce has recently completed compatibility testing of 100% SAF on all our in-production civil aero engine types and this is further proof that there are no engine technology barriers to the use of 100% SAF.

“The flight represents a major milestone for the entire aviation industry in its journey towards net-zero carbon emissions,” said Rolls-Royce Group Engineering, Technology and Safety director Simon Burr.

“Air bp is honoured to participate in this first ever 100% SAF-fuelled transatlantic flight by a commercial airline, as one of the consortium’s preferred SAF suppliers. This is a milestone moment for aviation and for our industry and helps build evidence for the reliability and safety of using 100% SAF in today’s aircraft,” Air bp senior VP Federica Berra said.

“Collaboration with industry partners is vital to successfully scale SAF, as is long-term policy support to foster supply and demand. Our expert team has worked for months in preparation for today’s flight, drawing upon their deep knowledge and skills in fuel handling, blending and logistics, overall, ensuring product quality and safety standards have been met,” she said.

“The spirit of innovation is getting out there and trying to prove that we can do things better for everyone’s benefit. A pioneering spirit continues to be Virgin Atlantic’s beating heart, as it pushes the boundaries from carbon fibre aircraft and fleet upgrades to sustainable fuels,” said Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson.

“I couldn’t be prouder to be onboard Flight100 today alongside the teams at Virgin Atlantic and our partners, which have been working together to set the flight path for the decarbonisation of long-haul aviation,” he said.

Virgin Atlantic's Flight 100 being fuelled with SAF Photo by Virgin Atlantic
Virgin Atlantic’s Flight 100 being fuelled with SAF
Photo by Virgin Atlantic

Our Partners