Celebrating National Aviation Day and how Sustainable Aviation Fuel is tied to future sustainability, and success, of the enterprise

August 19, 2020 |

By Steve Csonka, Executive Director of CAAFI, the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative

Special to The Digest

Today is National Aviation Day in the U.S., a recognition instituted by FDR in 1939, honoring the birthday of Orville Wright, but also creating awareness of, and celebrating the progress and vision associated with, the aviation industry.  Today that industry has become so much more than envisioned 81 years ago, while having the potential to be even that much more for future generations. Civil aviation in the U.S. drives more than $1.85 trillion in annual economic activity, and creates the livelihood for more than 11 million workers; an industry that “punches well above its weight” in measures like balance-of-trade and value-per-environmental-impact versus other industrial sectors.   Worldwide, the impact of aviation is huge, and likely touches all of us in some very meaningful ways. So, aviation is truly something to celebrate today, and to anticipate for tomorrow.  I encourage you to do so with your family, or at least to reach out to someone you know who works in the industry, and let them know, despite the current downturn and challenges, you appreciate what they’re doing for the benefit of society.

For the last several years, society has been suggesting that aviation, along with many other industrial sectors, move more aggressively in the direction of enhanced sustainability.  Despite the COVID-driven turmoil in which the industry finds itself today, I believe aviation can and will rise to the challenge of cleaner, quieter, safer, more efficient, more affordable, and sufficiently sustainable aviation, in its many forms.  We’ve done it for years on issues of aircraft noise and criteria pollutants, while continuously delivering aircraft efficiency improvements that keep the cost of air travel affordable.  Such progress will enable continued sectoral growth and access to this transformational technology for our progeny, as well as other developing markets and economies who have actually yet to benefit directly from our progress.

One key to achieving environmental sustainability is to address greenhouse gas reductions.  Progress on this front will likely be impacted most by the widespread use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF).  SAF are partially synthetic drop-in jet fuels made from bio-based or other circular-economy feedstock sources, using industrialized biochemical and thermochemical processes.  On a gallon-per-gallon basis, today’s SAF blending components typically reduce net CO2 lifecycle emissions by from 50-80% versus conventional jet.  In several cases in development, the SAF will actually deliver negative carbon index scores, meaning that its production removed/prevented more greenhouse gases from our environment than it will release during in-flight combustion. They are safe for use today, and have been used continuously at select airports (e.g. LAX) since 2016. There are greater than 350M gpy offtake commitments from multiple airlines representing greater than $6B outlay, and all of the SAF output from the first several production facilities has been committed.  Stay tuned for further announcements along these lines later this year, as such announcement continue to be made on a continual basis, in spite of the current turmoil.

The challenge that we have with SAF today, and why we are only uptaking SAF at less than 0.1% of total jet fuel usage, is that they are more expensive than the rather depressed price of petroleum-derived jet fuel, or they’re at a competitive disadvantage to renewable diesel production.  So, this is the primary focus CAAFI and others have now; fostering the development of feedstocks, supply chains, conversion processes, and byproducts to enable lower-cost production and facilitate affordable airline uptake.  It’s a challenge, but we continue to make progress, especially with assistance from DOE and USDA on the development of technologies and feedstocks.  In some cases, governments are deploying policy elements that help close the price gap.  So, we’re making slow but steady progress.

SAF usage will immediately start to lower the net GHG footprint of aviation.  We don’t need to wait for unique technologies to work their way into the fleet in 10, 20, or 30 years. We don’t have to modify fuel distribution infrastructure.  We don’t need to switch to hydrogen powered aircraft.  We simply need to stand-up the facilities to produce the fuels, hopefully in an accelerated fashion from the build-out described above. We know how to make them, we know they can be sustainable, and their use is impactful!  In fact, we know some of these fuels will be carbon negative!  With the right policy approach, we can see a significant ramp-up in production from a broad range of renewable and circular-economy resources.

Interestingly, another unique, related story quietly played out last week, one I suspect is similar to my own and hundreds of others similarly struck with the “aviophile” condition.  Robert DeLaurentis, self-described “Peace Pilot” / “Zen Pilot,” completed a transformational journey, “the Pole-to-Pole Peace Mission,” flying in the “Citizen of the World,” a highly modified Gulfstream Twin-Turbo Commander 900.  This was a polar circumnavigation of the planet, encompassing 26,000 nautical miles, visits to 23 countries and 6 continents, including an 18 hour solo segment over the South Pole.  Roberts’s intent was simple – “to encourage and inspire,” and to “show the world that impossibly big dreams can be achieved and that we are all connected.” Mission accomplished, Robert!  Additionally, he was also performing science along the way, and advocating for STEM.  Oh, and the additional tie to this commentary … he flew the mission using a SAF blend, acquired in part from Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation, via World Fuel Services and World Energy’s Paramount, CA SAF production facility.  Gulfstream has been using SAF in their own operations since 2016, and are now also offering that fuel to select customers at their Long Beach facility.  Robert used SAF to lower the environmental impact of his flight, so as not to detract from the overall aspirations of the endeavor. We can continue to do so for all of Civil Aviation, in part with your continued interest and support for SAF R&DDD.

Finally, if you want some additional detail about SAF, the Business Aviation community, through the SAF Coalition (which includes CAAFI), today also released a second SAF Guide, entitled Fueling the Future, intended to serve as an educational and informational resource about the practicalities of SAF development, industry adoption, and pending expansion of supply and use, primarily from the perspectives of the business aviation community.  It also reinforces the industry’s global commitment to sustainable aviation fuels as a key component to enabling the global industry meet its long-term goal to address climate change by halving carbon emissions by 2050 relative to 2005 levels.

Take a look at the Guide, and with consideration of the above, move SAF into your consciousness and lexicon with respect to your vision of the future of aviation. And, perhaps, fold up a few paper airplanes with the kids after dinner tonight, and let them know about the significance of aviation, that today is National Aviation Day, and that aviation has a sustainable future in its flight plan, and potentially in theirs, and SAF will likely play a key role.

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