Biofuels have been on the radar for commercial airlines for more than a decade. Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand both tested Boeing 747s in 2008 using a blend of regular aircraft fuel and biofuel. Dutch airline KLM operated the first commercial flight using a biofuel mixture in June 2011. Continental Airlines, which has since merged with United, flew the initial U.S.-based biofuel flight later that year.
Today, airlines are bracing for a fuel price rise. For example, American Airlines cited rising fuel prices when it announced cutbacks on transpacific routes this year. As a result, even more airline companies are looking to biofuels as a short- and long-term solution to unpredictable oil markets.
A biofueled future
Legacy carriers such as United and KLM/Air France have been driving forces behind development, but even low-cost carriers like Mexico’s Interjet and Australia's Jetstar Airways have used biofuels.
Developing markets are getting in on biofuel testing and development, too. Indian carrier SpiceJet operated a domestic flight in August 2018 using a biofuel mixture. According to the airline’s chairman, Ajay Singh, this was the first commercial biofuel flight by an airline in the developing world.
This is important because it makes the alternative-fuel trend global, but it is also significant because it occurred in the Indian market. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), India, along with China, Indonesia and Vietnam, will account for a large amount of the increase in global air travel by 2035. The demand for plane seats in the U.S. also will grow, but countries like India soon will play a much larger role in industry developments.
While welcoming SpiceJet’s biofuel flight to its destination in Delhi, Singh mentioned the reason behind biofuel’s rise in the aviation industry: "It has the potential to reduce our dependence on traditional aviation fuel by up to 50 percent on every flight and bring down fares.” (Industry rules say the maximum amount of biofuel allowed in fuel mixtures is 50 percent.)
Biofuel can have a positive effect on airlines’ bottom lines and help them compete when it comes to the most important factor passengers consider when flying: cost. The rise of air travel in the developing world has been, and will continue to be, spurred by the availability of low fares.
Why isn’t everyone using biofuels?
United Airlines is betting big on biofuels, especially at Los Angeles International Airport where alternative fuel is a regular part of its operations. (Photo: Meister Photos/Shutterstock.com)
For both airlines and passengers, biofuel mixtures seem like a win-win. According to the IATA, 130,000 flights have already flown using biofuel mixtures. Projections by the industry organization and NASA have said that the use of 50 percent biofuel mixtures across the industry can cut emissions by 50 to 70 percent. That would reach the IATA’s long-term goals of cutting airline emissions in half by 2050.
A number of companies are developing biofuels using everything from algae to flowering plants to oils created by garbage and food waste. Biofuel refineries are struggling to meet demand, but delivery of alternative fuel is what currently makes it a more-expensive option.
Airports in Oslo and Bergen, Norway, have biofuel delivery systems alongside their traditional jet kerosene infrastructure. In the U.S., it is airlines, not airports or alternative energy investors, who are pushing the development of biofuels forward.
United Airlines, for one, is betting big on biofuels. It has installed infrastructure at Los Angeles International Airport to make alternative fuels a regular part of its operations there, and it has invested in biofuel companies. United has taken a stake in Fulcrum BioEnergy Inc. With this financial backing, the company built a new facility to produce garbage-based biofuel to help it meet the airline’s demand.
There's still a long way to go
Even so, the demand for United, which has 4,600 departures per day, is huge. The company has to go to multiple sources to meet its current biofuel demands for a fraction of its flights.
United, Virgin, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, and JetBlue have all announced partnerships with biofuel producers that will launch between now and 2020. The interest and the ability to invest are there, but a complete switch to biofuel mixtures will not happen overnight.