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Onboard ‘Flight100’ – the first transatlantic flight powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel

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On Tuesday, I was one of an exclusive group of 110 people on board Virgin Atlantic’s ‘Flight100’.

If you haven’t been following along, this was a demonstration flight operated by Virgin Atlantic in conjunction with Boeing, Rolls-Royce and four other companies and universities to prove that current aircraft are able to fly on 100% sustainable aviation fuel. A few weeks ago, I visited Rolls-Royce in Derby to learn more about their testing program.

The Department for Transport, which kicked off the challenge, provided £1 million in funding which Virgin matched.

Since winning the competition to operate the flight in November 2022, Virgin Atlantic and its partners have been beavering away to make it a reality, but also to ensure that the flight would be as safe as any other commercial flight.

Onboard 'Flight100' - the first transatlantic flight powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel

As this was a demonstration flight, no paying passengers or cargo were allowed on board. In fact, the Civil Aviation Authority would only permit a maximum of 120 people on board who had to have a specific interest in the flight itself. That included staff from all the consortium partners as well as a small selection of broadcasters and journalists such as myself to document the experience.

Whilst we boarded the flight just after 10am on Tuesday, work has been underway for some time to prepare the aircraft. Holly Boyd-Boland, VP Corporate Development and Sustainability at Virgin Atlantic, told me:

“It’s been a process over the last six to eight months, where we have been identifying the fuel and doing a lot of testing, primarily through our partners at Rolls-Royce and in collaboration with Sheffield University.

But getting ready for today and going back a week or so, the fuel arrived from Europe and the US at the beginning of last week and was blended on the Isle of Grain by AirBP last Tuesday. Last Thursday, it was tankered in two specific bowsers up to Heathrow. On Friday we fueled the engines, which took a couple of batches. So we fueled the initial, then did some additional testing, then we fueled the whole thing up. And between Friday and now the aircraft’s been under pretty tight maintenance watch to make sure that it was fit for purpose.”  

Onboard 'Flight100' - the first transatlantic flight powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel

The fuel used yesterday was a specific blend of two different types of sustainable aviation fuel, in order to create what is called a ‘drop in’ fuel. This means that no modifications need to be made to the aircraft in order for it to fly: it can be used just like normal jet fuel, without having to recertify the engines and fuel systems. Said Corneel Koster, Virgin’s Chief Customer & Operating Officer:

“We knew from full testing on the ground that this blend, which is 88% HEFA, basically fatty acids and waste oils; and 12%, synthetic, aromatic kerosene, which is made from waste from corn. This combination is unique. But we tested this extensively on Rolls Royce on the ground for an entire full flight profile of a flight to New York. And then the next day we tested the normal Jet A fuel and saw that it’s absolutely comparable.”

Maria Laine, President United Kingdom, Ireland & Nordic region for Boeing added:

“That’s the beauty of sustainable aviation fuels. It truly is a drop-in solution. That’s one of the purposes of this flight, to serve as proof that we can easily slide it into commercial operations so that no major impacts to infrastructure or anything else needs to be carried out.”

Onboard 'Flight100' - the first transatlantic flight powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel

Nonetheless, Virgin Atlantic was still keen to run a little dress rehearsal before the main event on Tuesday, particularly given the exceptionally high interest in the story. Corneel said:

“We were fully certified and ready to fly today, without having done it before. But look, quite clearly the world is watching today. We wanted to make sure that everything goes right. So we de-risked the project and some of our ground procedures by doing a very short, very quiet flight on Saturday as a dress rehearsal, to go above and beyond and to make sure that everything was ready for Tuesday. It was completely uneventful!”

The dress rehearsal paid off. VS100 took off smoothly at 11:49am as expected, and for those of us on board it felt like any other flight to New York. From the flight itself it was indistinguishable that we were running on sustainable aviation fuel. The only giveaway was the excitement on board and the cheer after take-off!

Onboard 'Flight100' - the first transatlantic flight powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel

Flight100 wasn’t just testing sustainable aviation fuels, however. Virgin Atlantic also incorporated a suite of fuel-saving measures including one of the most direct routings from London to New York that’s possible, saving a predicted 1,000kg+ of jetfuel.

Onboard 'Flight100' - the first transatlantic flight powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel

Other measures included more efficient ascent and descent procedures and single-engine taxiing at JFK. In total, an estimated 3,242kg of fuel were saved, equivalent to just over 10,000kg of CO2.

After 7:16 hours, we came in to land in an overcast and ice-cold JFK Airport, with the entire flight having operated as expected.

I’d be lying if I said the flight was eventful: as I mentioned above, to us it felt like any other regular service between London and New York. But that’s the beauty of sustainable aviation fuel: it can reduce our carbon footprint by over 70% on existing infrastructure and without needing to re-invent the wheel. This makes it the only practical solution for decarbonising aviation in the next few decades before future technologies such as hydrogen or battery flight become a commercial reality.

What’s next? Supply continues to be a major problem, with SAF currently contributing less than 0.1% of all aviation fuel globally. Scaling up production will be key. Just to get to Virgin Atlantic’s target of 10% by 2030 will require a hundred-fold increase.

Sadly, SAF production in the UK is extremely thin on the ground with no dedicated SAF refineries in operation. The fuel used for our flight was imported from the EU and US. At present, five commercial plants are due to start construction by 2025

If everything goes to plan, though, Virgin Atlantic will be flying with 10%+ SAF in just over six years.

How to earn Virgin Points from UK credit cards

How to earn Virgin Points from UK credit cards (March 2024)

As a reminder, there are various ways of earning Virgin Points from UK credit cards.  Many cards also have generous sign-up bonuses.

You can choose from two official Virgin Atlantic credit cards (apply here, the Reward+ card has a bonus of 15,000 Virgin Points):

Virgin Atlantic Reward+ Mastercard

15,000 bonus points and 1.5 points for every £1 you spend Read our full review

Virgin Atlantic Reward Mastercard

A generous earning rate for a free card at 0.75 points per £1 Read our full review

You can also earn Virgin Points from various American Express cards – and these have sign-up bonuses too.

American Express Preferred Rewards Gold is FREE for a year and comes with 20,000 Membership Rewards points, which convert into 20,000 Virgin Points.

American Express Preferred Rewards Gold

Your best beginner’s card – 20,000 points, FREE for a year & four airport lounge passes Read our full review

The Platinum Card from American Express comes with 40,000 Membership Rewards points, which convert into 40,000 Virgin Points.

The Platinum Card from American Express

40,000 bonus points and a huge range of valuable benefits – for a fee Read our full review

Small business owners should consider the two American Express Business cards. Points convert at 1:1 into Virgin Points.

American Express Business Platinum

Crazy 120,000 points bonus (to 9th April) and an annual £200 Amex Travel credit Read our full review

American Express Business Gold

Huge 60,000 points sign-up bonus (until 9th April) and free for a year Read our full review

Click here to read our detailed summary of all UK credit cards which earn Virgin Points

(Want to earn more Virgin Points?  Click here to see our recent articles on Virgin Atlantic and Flying Club and click here for our home page with the latest news on earning and spending other airline and hotel points.)

Comments (126)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • ChasP says:

    Ladder manufacturers now leave more space between rungs because people are on average taller than 100 years ago

    Thats another example of climb-it change

  • Steve says:

    Brilliant. Shame Virgin cant get their internet to work on all their planes!

  • MrMcBurger says:

    Braver than me. No way am I flying on chip fat anytime soon

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

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