On an otherwise normal flight from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport on Wednesday, a United 737 Max 8 passenger flight operated with 100% sustainable aviation fuel — a first, and monumental, step for the aviation industry.
Boeing, CFM International, Virent, World Energy, and United partnered on the 612-mile demonstration flight, which emitted an estimated 75% less CO2 than a flight using traditional jet fuel, the companies said. The flight used 500 gallons of SAF in one engine and an equal amount of traditional jet fuel in the other.
“United continues to lead from the front when it comes to climate change action,” said United CEO Scott Kirby. “Today’s SAF flight is not only a significant milestone for efforts to decarbonize our industry, but when combined with the surge in commitments to produce and purchase alternative fuels, we’re demonstrating the scalable and impactful way companies can join together and play a role in addressing the biggest challenge of our lifetimes.”
Currently, airlines are only permitted to use a maximum of 50% SAF. The demonstration flight aimed to prove that there are no operational differences between SAF and traditional jet fuel and offer a launching point for the resource to scale.
In October, Airbus, Dassault Aviation, ONERA, the French Ministry of Transports, and Safran launched the first-in-flight study of a single-aisle aircraft running on unblended SAF provided by Total Energies. Initial results from the test flight are expected next year.
In addition to the demonstration flight accomplishment, United announced a corporate partnership with the goal of purchasing 7.1 million gallons of SAF this year.
“Boeing is proud to support United on this historic event as we work together to make aviation more sustainable,” said Ihssane Mounir, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for The Boeing Company. “As an industry, we are committed to addressing climate change, and sustainable aviation fuels are the most measurable solution to reduce aviation carbon emissions in the coming decades. No one entity can decarbonize aviation alone and it will require partnerships like this to ensure aviation is safe and sustainable for future generations.”
Other airlines are taking action, too: American Airlines partnered with Breakthrough Energy Catalyst to invest $100 million in SAF advancement. Delta Airlines, meanwhile, has signed a 10-year offtake agreement with Aemetis for 250 gallons of SAF valued at more than $1 billion. Southwest Airlines and IAG have agreed to buy 300 million gallons of SAF from Velocys.
“Sustainable aviation fuel is a critical element for the decarbonization of the aviation industry,” Velocys CEO Henrik Wareborn said. “Clear policy support is needed to attract investment to construct the necessary plants to deliver enough supply for the airline industry.”
It’s unclear if SAF is ready to take off like proponents hope. The increased cost of SAF over conventional jet fuel — 20-30% — remains a key challenge.
The Biden administration has set a goal of meeting 100% of aviation fuel demand with SAF by 2050. A SAF tax credit is included in President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda that’s being considered by Congress, in addition to $4.3 billion of new and ongoing funding to support SAF projects.
In 2018, about two million gallons of SAF were produced, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, while global demand was estimated at 106 million gallons of conventional jet fuel in 2020. The Biden administration wants to produce at least 3 billion gallons of SAF by 2030.