European airlines pioneer world’s first scheduled commercial biofuel flights

With the world’s population growing and becoming increasingly wealthy, IATA estimates 16 billion passengers will fly each year by 2050. But as passenger counts grow, airlines are needing ever-more fuel to keep their fleets in the sky. As air transport is the only mode of transport that will remain dependent upon liquid fuels for the foreseeable future, the aviation industry and the research community has no choice other than to develop and test alternatives. Furthermore, with oil prices rising and European emissions trading slated to begin in 2012, airlines will be faced with new expenses. Not only will they have to pay for the fuel the industry consumes, they’ll also need to acquire certificates for each ton of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere.

Airlines in June 2011 won approval from from the US standards body ASTM International to power planes with blends including biofuels for commercial flights. Biofuel refers to fuel made from renewable organic raw materials and is more efficient than kerosene and emits less greenhouse gas when burned. Depending on how the biomass used to make the fuel is produced, results could range between 50 and 80 percent less CO2 emissions. Although biofuel use is still not financially sustainable, as it is more expensive than ordinary aviation fuel and no large-scale production or distribution has yet been established, Europe’s first users of biofuel, KLM, Lufthansa, Finnair and Thomson Airways hope the increased interest from airlines in biofuel will encourage more companies to enter the growing market and help make it financially viable.

KLM, Finnair, Thomson
Following the world’s first demonstration flight carrying passengers with a B747 with one if its four engines running on a 50/50 blend of jetfuel and biofuel from the camelina plant, KLM aldo operated the world’s first commercial biofuel flight on June 29th 2011, using a blend of cooking oil recycled from restaurants to power a Boeing 737-800. The Dutch Inspectorate for Transport, Public Works & Water Management granted KLM permission to operate the return flight between Amsterdam and Paris Charles de Gaulle. Both flights had an almost full load of 171 passengers and KLM plans to operate some 200 AMS-CDG commercial flights powered in part by biokerosene from September 2011 on.

Although its first flights was powered by recycled cooking oil, KLM says is open to using different raw materials for the end product, as long as they meet a range of sustainability criteria, including substantial reductions in CO2 emissions and minimum negative impact on biodiversity and food supply. The biofuel used for the flights was supplied by Dynamic Fuels from the United States and distributed to the carrier via SkyNRG, the consortium co-founded by KLM in 2009 with North Sea Group and Spring Associates.

SkyNRG also supplies biofuel to Finnair and UK leisure carrier Thomson Airways (part of TUI Travel). Today (20th July 2011), Finnair carried out its first biofuel flight between Amsterdam and Helsinki with an Airbus A319, using a 50 percent biofuel blend in both engines. The pilot and purser explained in announcements to passengers that this was Finnair’s first biofuel flight, while cabin crew distributed a brochure with more details to passengers. The airline aims to fly at least four Amsterdam-Helsinki flights. Thomson in September 2011 will become the first UK airline to fly customers on sustainable biofuel and will operate a biofuel-powered Boeing 757 from Birmingham to Palma in the summer and Birmingham to Alicante in the winter for one year.

Whereas KLM and Thomson will start regular biofuel powered flights by September 2011, Lufthansa with the start of eight daily legs (4 round trips) between Hamburg and Frankfurt on July 15th became the first carrier in the world to offer regular scheduled flights running on biofuel. One of the engines of a Lufthansa A321 runs on a 50/50 mix of regular fuel and biofuel made from 80% camelina, 15% jathropa and 5% tallow (animal fats). The airline and its supplier Neste Oil, a Finnish oil company, guarantee that the supply and production of the biofuel is not in direct competition with food production and that no rainforests are destroyed.

The aircraft will be refueled at Hamburg during the six months test run period, and according to Lufthansa the use of 800 tonnes of biofuel needed for the approximately 1,200 flights will reduce CO2 emissions by up to 1,500 tonnes, which is around a 60 percent reduction in CO2 emissions. Lufthansa says that besides the reduction of CO2 emissions the main aim of the trial is to examine the effects of biofuel on the maintenance and lifespan of aircraft engines. GreenAir reports that Lufthansa has paid a little more than double the going price for the biofuel compared to jet kerosene. Lufthansa puts the total costs of conducting the biofuel project at about EUR6.6 million, EUR2.5 million of which will be paid by the German government.

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