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Take-off with old grease: Virgin Atlantic's Boeing 787 on its way to New York

Photo: Peter Nicholls / REUTERS

Sustainable flying – that sounds like a contradiction at first. According to the British government, however, there is an important step forward: according to the British government, this is the first time that a passenger aircraft powered entirely by the ecofuel SAF will cross the Atlantic. The abbreviation SAF stands for Sustainable Aviation Fuel, German.

"The future of flying is beginning," the Department for Transport in London announced. Virgin Atlantic's Boeing 787 Dreamliner took off from London's Heathrow Airport for New York on Tuesday afternoon. The SAF used was made from waste fats that were unsuitable for nutritional purposes, it said.

The industry is under pressure because of climate change. According to estimates, aviation accounts for around 2.5 percent of global CO₂ emissions. However, other particles and gases produced during the combustion of aviation fuel also have a harmful effect on the climate. According to the Federal Environment Agency, various effects add up to such an extent that "the greenhouse effect of flying is on average about two to five times higher than the effect of the CO₂ emitted alone." SAF fuels have only a limited effect on this, but according to studies, they could at least reduce the formation of climate-damaging contrails.

Nevertheless, these are important for the industry as long as battery or hydrogen aircraft, for example, are not in sight. In addition, there are more efficient engines and compensatory measures. The term SAF encompasses everything that is not produced from fossil raw materials and is sustainable. For example, SAF can basically be produced from frying fat, slaughterhouse and fish waste, as well as vegetable oils and their residues.

This first transatlantic flight shows how aviation is being decarbonised and emissions can be significantly reduced, said British Transport Secretary Mark Harper in advance. He was on board, as were Virgin founder Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss. The British government has supported the project with one million pounds (1.15 million euros). The UK plans to build a total of five SAF plants by 2025.

Recently, the U.S. company Gulfstream Aerospace completed what it claims to be the first fully SAF-powered transatlantic flight of a business jet.

The Aviation Environment Federation criticised a statement by Transport Secretary Harper that the technology would "make guilt-free flying a reality" as a bad joke. SAF accounts for around 0.1 percent of aviation fuel worldwide, and it will be difficult to increase the share to a sustainable level.