Thank You for Flying the Greener Skies

November 17th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Are cooking-oil-fueled flights literally on the horizon?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

As travelers gear up for another holiday travel season, some can look forward to flying the “greener” skies. On the heels of a United Airlines flight from Houston to Chicago fueled entirely by algae, Alaska Airlines commenced its own trial of 75 biofuel-powered flights last week. A recent article in The Seattle Times referred to the initiative as, “a pioneering effort to fly cleaner and kick-start a nascent renewable-energy economy.”

The greener planes are powered by a blend of regular jet fuel and 20 percent biofuel,  made of something resembling McDonald’s cooking oil. Airlines have been working on the biofuel planes for years as part of a worldwide effort to address claims that plane emissions contribute to global warming.  

In the past several months, airlines including Aeromexico, Lufthansa, Finnair and Thomson Airways have all launched their own biofueled flight initiatives. And if this all sounds a bit familiar, Virgin Atlantic first began trying out biofuels three years ago, while KLM tested a 50/50 blend of conventional fuel and used cooking oil on its Paris-Amsterdam route last June.

But before you get too excited about flying cross-country on cooking-oil fuel, remember that biofuel isn’t yet a viable alternative to conventional fuel. It’s unclear as to whether Alaska’s 75 trial flights will be part of the company’s long-term future. And Bill Glover of Boeing told NPR that Boeing’s near-term target is 1 percent of all the aviation fuel to have some bio-content by 2015. However well intentioned, the bio-content is still making up only 20 percent or less of most biofueled flights.

It’s also far more expensive than conventional fuel. According to the Seattle Times story, Alaska Airlines paid $476,000 for 28,000 gallons of biofuel to power the flights over the course of the 11-day trial. At $17 per gallon, that's six times what it pays for regular jet fuel.

Still, while Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., told NPR that real progress is at least 15 years away ("What you've got is somewhere between advanced showmanship and expensive subsidies”), airlines are optimistic. Jimmy Samartzis, managing director for global environmental affairs and sustainability at United, told the Huffington Post that since biofuels have the highest energy density of all currently available fuels, airlines will continue their commitment to improving fuel efficiency and carbon reduction goals by investing in them.

Flown on a bio-flight? Fill us in on your experience.