Virgin Atlantic Operates First 100% SAF Transatlantic Flight

Virgin Atlantic 787

The flight was operated on Boeing 787 equipment.

Credit: David Cannon/Getty

Virgin Atlantic has operated the world’s first transatlantic flight powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from London to New York, a move it says proves SAF is a safe drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel and the only viable solution for decarbonizing long-haul aviation.

Virgin Atlantic Flight VS100, on a Boeing 787 powered by Rolls-Royce Trent engines, took off from London Heathrow at 11:49 a.m. local time Nov. 28 and landed at New York’s JFK International Airport at 2:05 p.m. local time, according to the Flight Radar flight-tracking website.  

The 7-hr. 16-min. flight used a blend of SAF made up of 88% hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) made from waste fats supplied by Air bp. The remaining 12% synthetic aromatic kerosene (SAK) is made from plant sugars and was supplied by Virent, a subsidiary of Marathon Petroleum Corporation. SAK is needed in 100% SAF blends to give the fuel the necessary aromatics for engine function, Virgin said.  

It came after a year of “radical cross-industry collaboration,” the airline added.

The flight comes just a few days after ICAO member states agreed on a new global framework for SAF aimed at helping boost the volumes of the alternative fuels, in a move welcomed by airlines and the aviation industry generally.

With hydrogen and electric technologies far from ready for widespread use, SAF is seen as the most realistic way for airlines to cut their emissions in the coming decades as they aim to meet their 2050 net-zero objectives. It is still in extremely short supply, however, and SAF is much more expensive than standard jet fuel—hindering uptake.

Virgin said SAF currently represents less than 0.1% of global jet fuel volumes. The airline said its aim was to demonstrate the capability of SAF, currently only certified at a blend of 50%, as a safe drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel compatible with today’s engines, airframes, and fuel infrastructure. The carrier also wants the flight to help improve scientific understanding of the effects of SAF on contrails and particulates. It is working with consortium partners ICF, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), Imperial College London, and the University of Sheffield on such environmental effects.  

“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 airline said before the flight.

“There’s simply not enough SAF, and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment,” Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss said. “This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by government, are in place. Flight100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.”

Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson, who was onboard the flight, said, “The world will always assume something can’t be done, until you do it. The spirit of innovation is getting out there and trying to prove that we can do things better for everyone’s benefit.”

Sheila Remes, vice president of environmental sustainability at Boeing, said, “This flight is a key step toward our commitment to deliver 100% SAF-compatible airplanes by 2030.”

“Rolls-Royce has recently completed compatibility testing of 100% SAF on all our in-production civil aeroengine types, and this is further proof that there are no engine technology barriers to the use of 100% SAF,” Rolls-Royce Group Engineering, Technology and Safety Director Simon Burr said. “The flight represents a major milestone for the entire aviation industry in its journey towards net-zero carbon emissions.”

However, environmental campaigners were more skeptical about the significance of the flight.  

“The aviation sector’s current attempts to promote ‘sustainable’ flights is a greenwashing distraction from the urgent need to reduce flights,” said Stay Grounded’s Magdalena Heuwieser. 

Helen Massy-Beresford

Based in Paris, Helen Massy-Beresford covers European and Middle Eastern airlines, the European Commission’s air transport policy and the air cargo industry for Aviation Week & Space Technology and Aviation Daily.