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The Future of Flight?

For the first time, a commercial jetliner flew across the Atlantic Ocean without using fossil fuels. 

Richard Branson, three other men, and one woman pose in front of a plane holding a banner that says Flight100.

Virgin Atlantic

Richard Branson (second from left) and members of his team celebrate after flying across the Atlantic without the use of fossil fuels.

A commercial jetliner completed a flight from London, England, to New York City powered only by sustainable jet fuel. Instead of fossil fuels, the Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 plane ran on a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) consisting mostly of cooking oil, animal fat, and synthetic kerosene made from corn. Other planes have crossed the Atlantic Ocean without fossil fuels, but this was the first time a commercial jet made the journey. 

“The world will always assume something can’t be done, until you do it,” Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, wrote on his Facebook page. Branson was on board the flight, dubbed “Flight100,” along with scientists, engineers, and journalists. There were no paying passengers.

Virgin Atlantic

Aviation accounts for between 2 and 3 percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, due to the use of fossil fuels. Branson said the flight was a step toward using only SAF to fuel commercial planes so that air travel will no longer be a major contributor to climate change. The governments of both the United States and the United Kingdom have announced their intention to greatly increase their production of SAF with an aim toward curbing the use of fossil fuels. But environmentalists have their doubts.

Currently, commercial airplanes blend a small amount of SAF in with their traditional jet fuel—a very small amount. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, SAF made up less than 0.1 percent of the jet fuel used by major U.S. airlines in 2022. The supply of SAF is increasing, but progress is slow—partly because SAF is expensive to produce. Environmentalists say it’s misleading to claim that commercial aviation is on the verge of becoming environmentally responsible.

“The idea that this flight somehow gets us closer to guilt-free flying is a joke,” Cait Hewitt, policy director of the group Aviation Environment Federation, told reporters. “Hopefully, we’ll have better technological solutions in [the] future but, for now, the only way to cut CO2 from aviation is to fly less.”

But Branson says the recent flight is a good sign.

“It’s going to take a while before we can get enough fuel where everybody’s going to be able to fly. But you’ve got to start somewhere,” he told Reuters.

Did You Know?

Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images News

In 2019, Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg traveled from England to the United States on a zero-carbon yacht that used solar, wind, and hydro power. Thunberg, who was 16 at the time, hoped to call attention to the damaging effects of air travel and other forms of transportation.

Treading Lightly

What are the most sustainable ways to travel? Here’s a look at a few forms of transportation and their environmental impacts.

Cars

A congested highway with three lanes in each direction.

© Creativeimpression/Dreamstime.com

Most cars run on traditional fossil fuels, which spew out greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change. Unlike a bus or a train, one car carries only a small number of passengers, making it an environmentally inefficient mode of travel.

People can reduce the impact of car travel by driving hybrid or electric cars and by carpooling (sharing a car instead of using several cars). Walking or riding a bike is always preferable to driving when it is possible to do so.

Trains and Buses

Side by side images of a bus and a train.

© Mikhail Leonov/Dreamstime.com, © alpegor/stock.adobe.com

Some buses and many trains are electric or use alternative fuel, but many use fossil fuels. Still, experts say that train and bus travel is better for the planet than traveling by car or plane. Trains and buses can carry more people than cars, and they emit less pollution per passenger than planes.

Airplanes

A passenger jet takes off from a runway.

© Policas69/Dreamstime.com

Like trains and buses, commercial airplanes carry large numbers of people. Yet they’re far worse for the environment because they use a huge amount of fuel for takeoff. 

Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid flying. (If only trains could cross the ocean!) Experts say one way to reduce the environmental impact of flying is to fly only when necessary and then complete the journey on a train or a bus. Travelers can also choose to take one longer flight instead of two shorter flights for the same distance. Remember, planes use a lot of fuel each time they take off.

The Secret of Flight

© VectorMine, Aliaksandr Narouski/Dreamstime.com; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

What makes an airplane fly? Learn the answer to this question, and more about airplanes, at Britannica!

WORD OF THE DAY

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