Virgin Atlantic has released the findings from the world’s first commercial transatlantic flight powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

Virgin’s ‘Flight100’ flew from London Heathrow to New York JFK in November 2023, operated by a Boeing 787-9 aircraft powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines using 100 per cent SAF.

The aircraft did not require any modification to its engine, airframe or fuel infrastructure, and operated on safety standards equivalent to every other commercial flight.

The flight was designed to prove that SAF is a safe drop-in replacement for fossil fuel for use in commercial flights, as well as boost awareness of the technology and drive further investment into the production of sustainable aviation fuel across the industry.

Virgin’s report, released today, reveals that the flight saved 95 tonnes of CO2 compared to a standard Virgin flight from LHR to JFK – equivalent to a 64 per cent reduction of emissions.

Flight100 also indicated that the use of SAF could lead to the use of less fuel, since the flight  burned 350kg less fuel than expected.

A 10 per cent SAF adoption by 2030 could reduce the total UK fuel burn by 12,000 tonnes and 400,000 tonnes globally, according to the airline.

Findings also demonstrated SAF benefits beyond carbon, with a 40 per cent reduction in non-CO2 particulate emissions, such as sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides.

This suggests that SAF has the potential to improve local air quality at airports and reduce the formation of persistent contrails.

Virgin used this occasion to continue its demand for the radical scaling up of global SAF production across the industry, while also calling on the UK government to “match ambition with action” by implementing its SAF mandate, which aims for 10 per cent of aviation fuel to be SAF by 2030.

The report also urges all political parties in the UK to introduce a Revenue Certainty Mechanism by 2026 in their General Election manifestos “to de-risk investment, ensure UK SAF production and [prevent] consumers being penalised with excessive pricing”.

Shai Weiss, CEO at Virgin Atlantic, said:

“Flight100 was more than a year in the making, demonstrating that together we can achieve more than we can alone. Virgin Atlantic is committed to finding new solutions, leading efforts to decarbonise our industry and to share any learnings or innovations. This approach underpins Flight100.

“We have demonstrated that it can be done – SAF is a safe drop-in replacement for fossil fuel and can be used with today’s infrastructure. The project findings shared today range from the carbon emission savings achieved, fuel performance vs fossil derived Jet A-1 and the wider environmental benefits that adopting SAF may deliver in the future.

“We are ready to fly 100 per cent SAF, but a scale up in production of c. 100 times from where we are today is needed to meet 10 per cent SAF by 2030. We must now see urgent action from Government, oil majors and private capital to invest in the production capacity needed to deliver a thriving UK SAF industry. We’ve proven that if enough SAF is made, we will fly it.”

Sir Richard Branson added:

“It was a privilege to be onboard Flight100 with the amazing teams that made it happen. Flight100 was an example of what can be achieved through collective ambition and radical collaboration. Challenging the status quo is in our DNA at Virgin.

“Proving that 100 per cent SAF is operationally achievable today, with equivalent safety standards to all our other flights, was a pivotal moment but not a silver bullet. There is more work ahead to scale SAF at pace and whilst we cannot solve that challenge alone, Virgin Atlantic is committed to being at the forefront of the monumental effort required to decarbonise long haul flight.”

A Virgin Atlantic led consortium – jointly funded by the Department for Transport and including Rolls-Royce, Boeing, the University of Sheffield, Imperial College London and Rocky Mountain Institute – was involved in making Flight100 possible.

A consortium-led “technical deep dive” will follow the release of these results on 3 June, aiming to “ensure open-source information sharing”.

The SAF used for Flight100 was a blend of 87 per cent hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) sourced from Portugal and Austria and supplied by Air bp and 13 per cent SAK (Synthesised Aromatic Kerosene) supplied by Virent from the US. The former is made from waste fats while the latter is made from plant sugars.

Commercial aircraft are currently limited to a maximum blend of 50 per cent SAF and 50 per cent conventional jet fuel. For this reason, Flight100 was issued a one-off Permit to Fly approval in early November 2023, and received overflight approvals from the Irish, Canadian and American civil aviation authorities.

See the full report on Flight100 here.

Last month we interviewed Shai Weiss, who spoke about the rise in interest following Flight100:

Interview with Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic