Last week, Virgin Atlantic announced that it had flown the world’s first commercial plane fully powered by “sustainable aviation fuel” from London to New York.
But critics described the flight as “greenwashing,” and the company now faces a formal complaint over its claims of moving towards net-zero emissions goals.
Virgin Atlantic’s Flight 100 took off on Nov. 28 using SAF — which is composed largely of cooking oil — as a replacement for the typical fossil-derived jet fuel, the company said in a press release.
The Boeing 787, which was powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 1,000 engines, didn’t carry any fare-paying passengers, but those aboard included Virgin Atlantic founder and Virgin Islands belonger Sir Richard Branson.
The flight was designed to demonstrate the viability of using SAF as a safe jet fuel alternative compatible with most existing “engines, airframes and fuel infrastructure,” according to the Virgin Atlantic press release.
Sir Richard claims that SAF will play a significant role in the decarbonisation of jet fuel sooner than other alternatives like electric and hydrogen-powered planes, which “remain decades away.”
But United Kingdom-based climate charity Possible and UK law firm Leigh Day are challenging the airline’s claims about its efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
“Airlines are misleading the public about their environmental credentials (also called ‘greenwashing’), downplaying the harm they’re causing to our climate, and pretending we can meet emissions targets without cutting back on flights,” Possible alleged last Thursday in a press release. “We need to show airlines that their greenwash won’t fly. So we’ve brought in the lawyers.”
The two entities filed a formal complaint with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development last Thursday.
Possible has said that Virgin Atlantic failed to mention falling short on its own emissions target while emphasising its “Mission to Net Zero” plan on its website.
The non-profit and the law firm also filed a similar complaint against British Airways, alleging that it inaccurately claimed to have a “clear roadmap to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050” even though the airline had increased emissions year-on-year between 2016 and 2019.
“The reality is that technologies for cleaner flight either don’t exist yet, or don’t work,” Possible wrote. “Our complaint argues that it’s essential for airlines who communicate directly with customers and prospective customers about these issues to be honest and accurate about what they can actually achieve to reduce emissions while continuing to fly.”
Costs of the fuel
SAF costs up to five times as much as regular jet fuel and accounts for less than 0.1 percent of total global jet fuel, according to Virgin Atlantic. It consists of 88 percent hydroprocessed fatty acids and 12 percent plant sugars, and to sustain the production of SAF, there will need to be investments in feed-stocks and technologies, the airline noted.
VA CEO Shai Weiss is pushing for UK backing to produce more SAF with “regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms.”
Sir Richard, meanwhile, described the step as an example of his company’s leadership in the industry.
“Virgin Atlantic has been challenging the status quo and pushing the aviation industry to never settle and do better since 1984,” he said in the press release.