The good news for the aviation industry is that by this time next year, the number of “first 100% SAF-powered flight” headlines is likely to have soared, as more carriers back the potential of sustainable aviation fuel.

As 2023 drew to its conclusion, momentum was building behind a drop-in replacement for the traditional fossil fuel which currently enables air travel on an almost exclusive basis.

Virgin Atlantic claimed a world-first 100% SAF-powered transatlantic flight, completing a non-revenue journey between London Heathrow and New York JFK with a Boeing 787-9. Days earlier, Emirates Airline had for the first time flown an Airbus A380 with SAF fully powering one of its four engines.

Emirates A380 SAF wide

Source: Emirates Airline

You’re going to need a bigger truck…

But away from such headline-grabbing milestones, the industry’s SAF transition also received significant backing in Dubai. Days before the COP28 climate summit opened, ICAO’s Conference on Aviation and Alternative Fuels reached an agreement which delivers the strongest backing yet for the journey towards net-zero.

“The role of the framework is to facilitate the scale-up of the development and deployment of SAF, LCAF [low carbon aviation fuels] and other aviation cleaner energies on a global basis,” ICAO says. Its aspiration is to also cut aviation’s CO2 emissions by 5% by 2030, accelerating previous reduction targets.

The aviation industry has welcomed the proposal. “SAF is the only thing that is going to enable us to reduce our emissions this decade,” notes Jonathon Counsell, group head of sustainability, International Airlines Group. “In addition, it is the only viable solution for long-haul flying, which represents about 70% of aviation emissions.”

But while the framework agreement and a broad pledge at COP28 for nations to plan for a fossil fuel-free future are welcome signs of progress, the sector is by no means sure of achieving the environmental all-clear over the next few decades.

Where the announcements fall short so far is in ensuring the institutional backing needed for SAF production to take off at the rate required to hit net-zero goals by 2050. International and national action is needed to provide the support and legislation which will be vital if investors are to turn the financial tap so that the $1 billion-plus plants needed to produce such fuels can be built.

As the year neared its end, there were strong signs of status quo in the airline sector, with a late flurry of orders for current-generation narrowbody offerings from Airbus and Boeing.

With huge backlogs for their A320neo- and 737 Max-family single-aisles ensuring production continuity for the years ahead, the market’s leading airframers may be understandably reluctant to sink funds into advancing futuristic products such as hydrogen-powered airliners.

As in day-to-day life, where consumers want to fill up their cars without even noticing the switch to a new fuel standard, the manufacturers and carriers tasked with meeting huge and growing demand for air travel likewise will increasingly get behind the availability of a more sustainable drop-in replacement.