Boeing has just flown a 787-9 Dreamliner from Seattle to Cairo fuelled entirely by biofuel. The 10,973-kilometer delivery flight for EgyptAir was the longest 787 flight undertaken thus far using biofuels.
Boeing offers the option of using biofuel on 787 delivery flights. EgyptAir is the first airline to take up the offer.
The US aircraft manufacturer notes that the 787 is designed to be fuel-efficient. In a press statement, Boeing estimates that since the 787’s introduction in 2011, 37 million pounds of fuel has been saved. Adding biofuels to the mix will further reduce the 787’s environmental impact.
EgyptAir took delivery of its first 787-9 in March 2019. The latest delivery brings its 787-9 fleet to five. Ahmed Adel, CEO and Chairman of EgyptAir said;
“We are committed to the sustainable growth of our airline and supporting commercial aviation’s efforts to protect the environment… the 787-9 Dreamliner is a great fit for our network and provides our customers with a responsible choice for air travel.”
Biofuels and the aviation industry
Egyptair used a biofuel made at a refinery in California. It was made from agricultural byproducts, can be blended with regular jet fuel, and does not require modifications to the aircraft or its engines.
The International Energy Agency estimates that aviation will account for 30% of oil consumption by 2030 and 3.5% of global CO2 emissions. Sustainable fuels, or biofuels, are critical to reducing these levels.
Many airlines, including EgyptAir, have enacted reduction targets. There is a general agreement to try to reduce aviation carbon emissions by half of their 2005 levels by 2050.
In the more immediate future, EgyptAir is on track to reduce its emissions and fuel consumption by 25%. It is doing this by switching over to more fuel-efficient aircraft such as the 787 and by being willing to use biofuels.
While airlines are generally open to the idea of biofuels and support the idea of reducing emissions, one of the key barriers to greater takeup is cost.
Fuel is one of the biggest, if not the biggest cost for most airlines. Biofuels cost substantially more than standard kerosene-based jet fuels. Given that aviation is acutely sensitive to higher operating costs, the commercial reality is often trumping environmental kudos – at least for the time being.
Aviation biofuels have been available for a decade
Aviation biofuels have been certified and available since 2008 and the International Energy Agency notes that more than 150,000 flights have been undertaken at least partly fuelled by biofuels.
But biofuel use is still unusual enough to make the news. Recently, United made a bit of noise about buying 10 million gallons of biofuel. Some countries, such as Sweden, want to use the brute force of legislation to get airlines to use biofuels to reduce their emissions.
That may be a viable option for Sweden given that Stockholm is one of the few airports with a fully functioning biofuel distribution network.
Cost and distribution issues help explain why in 2018, only 15 million liters of aviation biofuel was used, accounting for 0.1% of all aviation fuel consumed worldwide.
Everyone needs to step up
While EgyptAir is to be commended for walking the talk and opening their wallet to pay a premium for the fuel on their latest 787 delivery flight, the test for Egyptair and other airlines is whether they will continue to do so in the future.
Long term environmental targets, whether in the aviation industry or anywhere, are notoriously pie in the sky. Think about how the Kyoto and Paris Agreements are going.
But most agree that the days of fossil fuels are numbered – not in the short to medium term, rather the longer term. The aviation industry, like everyone else, will have to get on board.
Right now, it’s hats off to Egyptair for taking a step in the right direction.