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Virgin Atlantic makes history with first ever sustainable, transatlantic flight — but critics aren’t convinced

“One flight on 100% alternative fuel isn’t going to change the fact that 99.9% of aviation fuel is fossil fuel.”

“One flight on 100% alternative fuel isn’t going to change the fact that 99.9% of aviation fuel is fossil fuel."

Photo Credit: iStock

In hopeful news for the future of sustainable air travel, the first commercial transatlantic flight has been completed without the need for fossil fuels. 

According to Reuters, Virgin Atlantic’s “Flight 100” made the trip from London Heathrow Airport in England to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. 

In a statement, Virgin said the flight was powered by “sustainable aviation fuel” (SAF), which is made from a blend of cooking oil and animal fat, as well as synthetic aromatic kerosene derived from waste corn.

The flight had no paying customers or baggage, and Virgin founder Richard Branson, the British government’s transport minister Mark Harper and Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss were on board.

“It’s going to take a while before we can get enough fuel where everybody’s going to be able to fly,” Branson said pre-flight, per Reuters. “But you’ve got to start somewhere.”

The International Energy Agency has said that aviation accounted for 2% of the world’s energy-related carbon dioxide pollution in 2022, so airlines are scrambling to find a way to significantly reduce the planet-warming gases their flights produce. 

As it stands, only a maximum of 50% SAF can be used for commercial flights, according to Reuters, but Virgin’s transatlantic test has proved what can be achieved when flying on 100%. 

SAF isn’t a perfect solution, though. It comes at a high cost, and it hasn’t yet been fully approved by industry regulators. 

Meanwhile, Magdalena Heuwieser from Stay Grounded, an advocacy group calling for a shift away from polluting short- and medium-distance flights and an end to continued airport expansion, has described Flight 100 as a “greenwashing distraction,” per Reuters.

Cait Hewitt, policy director at the Aviation Environment Federation, expressed similar sentiments on SAF in an interview with CNN, stating that, “One flight on 100% alternative fuel isn’t going to change the fact that 99.9% of aviation fuel is fossil fuel and there’s no great option for feedstock (raw materials) that can be scaled up sustainably.”

But Virgin’s SAF flight is still a step in the right direction, using existing waste products rather than drilling the Earth for raw materials. A serious decline in flight numbers is the only way to reduce aviation pollution in the short term, though.

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