Virgin Atlantic CEO urges government to increase SAF focus

Virgin Atlantic is preparing to operate the first transatlantic flight fuelled entirely by Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) at the end of this month.

The flight from Heathrow to New York on November 28 will mark the culmination of more than a year’s effort after the government launched a competition to fly the Atlantic using 100% SAF.

Airlines are currently certified to use a maximum 50% SAF, although only about 0.1% of aviation fuel comprises SAF at present.

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Despite winning the competition and preparing for the flight, Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss slammed the government last week, saying the UK “is really nowhere” on stimulating SAF production.

He argued: “SAF is the only way to decarbonise long-haul flying [and] we’re fighting against the US and Europe [to develop SAF].”

The US Inflation Reduction Act has made up to $400 billion available in tax breaks and investment on ‘clean’ energy while the EU has set binding mandates for aviation SAF use.

But in the UK, said Weiss: “We’re consulting.”

He urged the government to “increase the use of HEFA”, the process to refine vegetable oils, waste oils and fats into SAF, and “to provide a price support mechanism” for production which he said the government “does not want to do.”

Weiss insisted: “Investors want certainty and there isn’t any. I’m not optimistic about the emergence of the SAF industry in the UK. We expect 70% of SAF production to be in the US, 20% in the EU and 10% in the UK and elsewhere. Investors follow the money.

“The UK is doing the worst [on SAF] relative to its potential. Some of the world’s biggest airlines are here and we need price support. If we can’t change the mind of the Treasury, we’ll import the fuel. We need a 100% scale up just to get to 10% [SAF]. We need one million barrels of SAF a year.”

He added: “We calculate it will cost two to four times the price of jet fuel.”

Corneel Koster, Virgin Atlantic chief customer and operating officer, admitted he “was sceptical” when the competition was announced, saying: “Getting something like this certified is hard. We have to demonstrate it’s as safe as a normal flight. I’m confident but there is a still a lot to do.”

However, the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) said the fuel used for the flight “will not result in any additional reduction in atmospheric CO2” and “would reduce tailpipe emissions by 0%”, arguing: “SAFs produce the same volume of emissions as kerosene when combusted. Any CO2 savings will be ‘net’ savings during the production phase.”

The AEF also suggested extending SAF use to 100% “isn’t the issue holding back SAF” and warned: “Waste-based fuels can’t be scaled up sustainably.”

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