Biofuel flights: Will 'green' air travel also be cheaper?

Biofuel flights: Will 'green' air travel also be cheaper?

Heightened efforts to research sustainable fuel could mean massive cost savings, but how long will we have to wait?
Etihad Airways biofuel
Is that a fried chicken smell from the fuel tank?

It may be impressive that sustainability in aviation starts with its creative use of fuselage. But it is downright amazing that it extends to our used cooking oil as well.

Etihad Airways operated its first biofuel-powered delivery flight recently.

The Boeing 777-300ER flew 14 hours from Seattle to Abu Dhabi on a blend of traditional jet fuel and recycled vegetable cooking oil.

It was the first biofuel-powered flight for Etihad and also the first in the Gulf to be operated using sustainable biofuel. 

This year German airline Lufthansa also completed its six-month trial operating the world's first biofuel-powered route. Nearly 1,200 flights were completed between Hamburg and Frankfurt, reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 1,471 tonnes.

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KLM also operated 200 biofuel flights last year, and Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific has announced plans to research a jungle plant for a food non-competitive biofuel. 

Most interestingly, Cathay has claimed that within 20 years biofuels may cost half the price of traditional fuels, implying lower operating costs and perhaps, just perhaps, lower ticket prices. 

But, considering biofuels today are more expensive than regular fuels, how much of this is based on real desire to change and how much of it is "greenwash," good for headlines but not much else? 

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Green is go 

Firstly, there is already a financial motive for airlines to start to dedicate resources to biofuel development.

The inclusion of the aviation industry in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) from 2012 means airlines traveling through Europe have to pay for their carbon emissions, and so would be rewarded for the use of alternative jet fuels. 

This is seeing real results. "Thanks to the higher energy density of biofuel, it has been possible to reduce the fuel consumption by more than 1 percent," says Dr. Peter Schneckenleitner, Lufthansa's head of political communication.

But Linden Coppell, Etihad Airways’ head of environment, admits that the main purpose of Etihad's first biofuel flight was to "raise awareness" -- not to reduce CO2 emissions. 

Then there are the critics who claim biofuels are not actually that green. 

"Biofuel production is trashing rainforest, causing climate-changing emissions and making food prices spiral," says Kenneth Richter, Friends of the Earth's biofuel campaigner. "Using them as aviation fuel would make matters even worse."

One of the major worries concerns food availability and the side-effects of growing biofuel crops. 

Biofuels are fuels converted from processed biomass including vegetable oils and animal fats. Plantation of these crops may not only sacrifice croplands for food, causing food shortages, but carbon dioxide would also be released during deforestation and biofuel production.

It all means that a biofuel-dominated aviation industry is decades away, at least. 

"It's right that we research the potential of alternative biofuels like algae, but even if shown to be a climate-friendly option, its use is years in the making," says Richter.

Green line vs. bottom line

Throw in the heavy cost of today's biofuel and you can see why airlines consider them more a marketing exercise than a permanent fixture in their operating strategies. 

Lufthansa's Schneckenleitner admits there is "a long and hard way to go" before biofuels become the major fuel in aviation. 

He also says that the practical biofuel trials at Lufthansa will only be continued if more certified sustainable sources are available.

"There are still a lot of challenges to handle -- just to name some of them: to secure the use of sustainable, certified biomass; to adapt airport infrastructure for biofuel use; to optimize the whole supply chain and logistic processes."

Etihad Airways says they are actively looking at ways to support sustainable biofuel development but currently they have no further plans to use biofuel on commercial flights. 

Meanwhile Cathay says it will continue to look into the use of a jungle plant as a biofuel source, perhaps seeing biofuel costs, once production is scaled up, on a par with regular fuel by 2020. 

Others though will always take some convincing. 

Friends of the Earth's Richter agrees that biofuels made from waste products like used cooking oil are "a clean source of energy," but insists supply would be a problem. 

The key solution is still to fly less, he says.

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Hiufu Wong is CNN Travel's staff writer.

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