(Pictured: SAFUG members) Singapore Airlines made news last week with its announcement of “green package” flights on its non-stop San Francisco-Singapore route, powered by sustainable biofuels produced from used cooking oils and conventional jet fuel. Other airlines have committed to advancing and commercializing sustainable aviation biofuels, as well – most airlines claim they are doing so in order to become more sustainable and lower carbon emissions – but it is not clear from a business perspective just how biofuels will affect the aviation industry.
Environmental Leader asked Singapore Airlines last week why it had committed to just 12 biofuel flights in its highly promoted green package. A Singapore Airlines spokesperson told us that the 12 flights are a key follow-up to a joint economic feasibility study that was completed back in 2015. The study, from the airline and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, examined the potential introduction of biofuel in Singapore. The spokesperson added that the initiative is also a first step within a long-term strategy to see sustainable biofuels adopted for use in aviation in Singapore. As aviation biofuel continues to develop, Singapore Airlines will work toward broader, commercially viable biofuel development.
Cathay Pacific is another airline that has supported the use of biofuels for a number of years; the airline hired a full-time biofuel manager in 2010 and became the first airline investor in sustainable biofuel developer Fulcrum BioEnergy, according to Apex Media. Six or seven years ago, “nobody would have ever imagined that biofuel would ever become viable, or even tested,” said Evelyn Chan, Cathay Pacific’s head of environmental affairs.
As studies on the viability of biofuel in aviation began to be considered, airlines came together in 2008 to form a trade organization, the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG). The group – the members of which represent 33% of commercial aviation fuel demand – says the aviation industry is committed to achieving carbon-neutral growth by 2020, and that a key strategy to reach the goal will be the use of sustainable aviation biofuels.
According to SAFUG, sustainable aviation biofuels are those that: meet or exceed jet fuel standards; have significantly lower carbon emissions over their lifecycle compared to fossil fuel sources; do not displace food crops or jeopardize drinking water supplies; minimize impacts on biodiversity and do not contribute to the clearing or conversion of natural ecosystems and areas of high conservation value; and have a positive socioeconomic impact where feedstocks are grown.
JetBlue, a member of SAFUG, wrote in its recently released sustainability report that in 2016 the company signed one of the biggest renewable jet fuel agreements in aviation history. For at least the next 10 years, the company said, it will buy blended fuel produced from rapidly replenishable biological resources. The fuel is 30% renewable and 70% traditional, and aims for at least a 50% reduction in GHG emissions per gallon, with no impact on performance or safety, according to the company.
Cathay Pacific’s senior VP for the Americas, Phillipe Lacamp, believes the use of biofuels can be a business driver. Increasingly, customers are beginning to drive the company’s decision-making investments in biofuels, as well as on supply chain integrity, waste and recycling, he told Apex.
Lacamp suggested that, in order to advance practices like the use of biofuel, it may come down to the airports. Airports that offer airlines benefits like reductions in landing fees or priority slots if they use biofuel may help push the industry, he said.