Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Major Airlines Commit to Sustainable Aviation Fuels

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United to purchase 1 billion gallons!

Martin Wahl

Major airlines are putting their money where their futures are, securing long-term contracts with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) providers.

Most recently, United Airlines entered a supply agreement for 1 billion gallons from Cemvita, calling for 50 million gallons (MG) per year over 20 years, the largest commitment to date. Virgin Atlantic has committed to buy SAF from Gevo, with partner airline Delta at San Franciso and Los Angeles airports in addition to SAF from Neste at its U.K locations. Other SAF purchase commitments include:

  • American Airlines used 2.5 MG in 2022 and has committed to buying at least 620 MG between 2025 and 2030.

  • Delta Air Lines in 2022 announced it would purchase 525 MG over seven years, starting in 2026. It further aims to scale usage of SAF in its fleet to 10% by 2030, 35% by 2035, and 95% by 2050.

  • Southwest Airlines in 2021 said it plans to buy 219 MG over a 15-year term, starting in 2026. Last year SAF accounted for 0.1% of the airline’s total fuel consumption, and it plans by 2030 to have SAF account for 10% of its total fuel usage.

  • JetBlue Airways in 2021 unveiled a commitment to purchase 670 MG, from 2023 to 2033, for its flights using New York City airports.

United, JetBlue and others have also invested in a sustainable fuels fund now worth $200 million.

Whole lot of testing going on

United began using a SAF blend in 2016 in its Los Angeles -San Francisco flights and currently almost all major international and domestic airlines are testing SAF blends.

The most recent significant testing news is that Virgin Atlantic has been granted a permit from the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority to fly a 100% SAF-fueled flight from London to New York on November 28, a first. Otherwise, SAF can currently only be used in jet engines to a maximum blend of 50% with fossil jet fuel.

What is SAF?

Fossil jet fuel, along with diesel and kerosene, is a middle-distillate petroleum product between lighter gasoline and heavier lubricating and fuel oils. Requirements for jet fuel are stringent because of the environment it must perform in (freezing cold, with anti-static additives). Sustainable (bio-based) fuel must meet these requirements to be used as a drop-in replacement. Currently, there are seven approved types, or pathways, to produce sustainable aviation fuels that meet the standards for jet fuel that fall into three categories:

  • Refining vegetable oils, waste oils or fats into SAF. Neste of Finland is a leading producer with this approach.

  • Biomass, such as waste wood can be converted to syngas and refined into jet fuel; Fulcrum Bioenergy of California produces jet fuel this way.

  • Turning waste into sugars (or starting with sugar) and fermenting it to alcohol as a feedstock for an alcohol-to-jet fuel process. Gevo and LanzaJet are leaders in this approach.

A drop in the bucket?

Aviation contributes between 2% and 3.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; about 2% of CO2 emissions, with 1.5% added to account for non-CO2 emissions contributing to global warming, including contrails in high-humidity regions, nitrogen oxide emissions, and water vapor in the stratosphere. This all adds up to about 1.04 billion tons of GHG emissions, resulting from the annual global consumption of 106 billion gallons of jet fuel (20% of that in the U.S.).

Total U.S. production of SAF was 15.8 MG in 2022, less than 0.1% of the jet fuel consumed by major U.S. airlines that year, but a significant increase since 2016, when the 1.6 MG of SAF produced constituted only 0.01%.

While aviation emissions are relatively small compared to those of other sectors, air travel constitutes a large part of the individual emissions for the increasing number of people who travel by air – a couple of long-distance flights can wipe out CO2 savings generated by other actions. See the EPA’s Carbon Footprint Calculator to determine an individual’s contribution:

More good news

  • The European Union is setting a requirement that fuel suppliers ensure that 2% of fuel made available at EU airports is SAF in 2025, rising to 6% in 2030, 20% in 2035 and over time to 70% in 2050.

  • Airlines have begun to highlight their commitment to, and implementation of, SAF as part of their promotion campaigns.

  • Passenger aircraft have become far more efficient over the past few decades, with CO2 emissions per “revenue passenger mile” decreasing from 3 kilos to 0.125 kilos since 1950. However, the number of passengers has grown significantly, from about 2 billion in 2004 to almost 5 billion in 2019 (pre-Covid).

After a career in data product management, Martin Wahl has worked in biofuels since 2006, currently with Lee Enterprises Consulting, a large bio-economy consulting group. Dividing his time between California and New Hampshire, he serves on Corte Madera, California’s Climate Action Committee and is a Newfound Lake Region Association member.


United Airlines Jet (courtesy photo)

Virgin Atlantic 787 (courtesy photo)

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