With demands rising for sustainability and decarbonization across aviation, the business aviation industry “should be proud, not shy” when it comes to doing its part, Dassault Falcon Jet CEO Thierry Betbeze said late last month at AIN’s first of four regional Building a Sustainable Flight Department Conferences.
While responsible for only 0.04 percent of global emissions, business aviation is nonetheless blazing a greener path with new fuels, technologies, and other efforts. But sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is “critical” to emissions reductions, according to NBAA, National Air Transportation Association (NATA), and other aviation trade groups.
Pilots and aircraft operators need to understand that SAF is a drop-in-ready jet fuel, stressed Keith Sawyer, Avfuel’s manager of alternative fuels. It is fully compatible with jet-A/A1 without any modifications to aircraft or engines, he added.
“SAF is approved by OEMs and ASTM and is recommended by the FAA, EASA, and other international aviation safety agencies,” Sawyer said. “More than 400,000 flights have occurred using SAF to date, which is really quite remarkable.”
Because SAF is made from feedstocks such as used cooking oil or plant-based materials that would otherwise be burned or thrown away, its potential greenhouse gas reduction is up to 80 percent in its “neat,” or pure, form, according to Sawyer. At present, aircraft are approved to use a 50 percent SAF blend, which would yield a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Several aircraft engine manufacturers are also striving to get approval for 100 percent SAF.
SAF is important, Sawyer explained, because it is one of the main methods that the aviation industry will use to reach the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. “We’ve made big progress in engine and aircraft technology and flying aircraft efficiently, and one of the key components that remains is the introduction of SAF into the supply chain; that puts business and general aviation over the top.”
But there are three key hurdles to more widespread SAF use in business aviation: supply, availability, and affordability. All three are interrelated, with supply dependent on demand, availability relying on both supply and demand, and affordability based on supply as it relates to production volume.
Efforts are already underway to expand annual U.S. production from less than two million gallons currently to three billion gallons by 2030, and then 100 percent of business aviation's turbine fuel needs by 2050, noted NATA president and CEO Tim Obitts.
While more airports and FBOs are offering SAF, one of the most consistent supplies in the U.S. has been at California’s Monterey Jet Center, which kicked of its SAF initiative with Avfuel in April. “We have a strategic partnership with [SAF manufacturer] Neste," Sawyer said, "which allows us to bring in a consistent supply. Monterey Jet Center is our most active location. It’s extraordinary how well it’s been received.”
Still, SAF is currently supplied on an ongoing basis at only 20 FBOs in the U.S., with the majority on the West Coast, according to aviation sustainability group 4Air. Most retail sales of SAF are typically for blends of 10 to 30 percent of the biofuel.
Book-and-claim—where one operator buys fuel and pays the higher price for SAF in an area where it’s unavailable, and another operator burns the SAF but doesn’t pay the premium—will help to expand availability, but this, too, is currently offered at only a handful of FBOs. In this case, the original purchaser gets the credit for buying SAF even though it is consumed elsewhere. This avoids the expensive and energy-wasting need to physically move the fuel from near where it is produced to where that customer wanted to buy it to receive the credit.
The cost of SAF is an ongoing issue as it is more expensive to produce for now, but the price difference is expected to drop as volumes grow. “We believe that will narrow as we get increasing supply generated by more demand signals,” Sawyer said. The largest volumes will be in the western U.S., thanks to government incentives that make the market more attractive.
As more operators find that they are burning SAF in their aircraft’s engines, fuel buyers need to make sure they obtain the correctly filled out product transfer documents to account for the emissions-reduction benefits. “You should expect to receive this if you are a consumer of SAF,” Sawyer explained. Proper documentation is also important when using the book-and-claim process, he added.
Bridging the Gap
Carbon offsets and other footprint reductions can “bridge the gap” in goals along the way, said 4Air COO of sustainability Nancy Bsales. “Carbon neutrality can be achieved today,” she added.
At the flight department level, the process starts by establishing an emissions baseline, measured in metric tons of CO2, and setting a budget for buying offsets. Jet fuel is the greatest contributor, but all ground operations, maintenance, offices, and other energy-intensive equipment—even including phone chargers—contribute to the carbon footprint.
Reducing one tonne of emissions via offsets costs just $10 to $15, Bsales said. Thus, achieving total neutrality through offsets would cost “less than 1 percent of your [flight department] budget,” she pointed out.
The projects these credits fund are all audited and validated to ensure they reduce total emissions the equivalent amount, according to Bsales. As an added bonus, she said carbon offset buyers can also select programs that align with their corporate or personal values, be it environmental, social, or economic sustainability.
Concurrently, operators should try to increase the use of SAF and ask fuel providers to increase its availability, demand that will help spur more production. As these initiatives spread, Bsales said, “No one will look at private aircraft and say, ‘What did you do about sustainability?’”