British Airways made a breakthrough on September 14, 2021, when it operated its first-ever passenger flight using recycled cooking oil. Credit: Airbus.

“I say old chap, are you using that cooking oil, after you cook your fish and chips? I need it to fuel my Airbus.”

As crazy as that sounds, it actually was done. The only thing missing, was salt and vinegar.

According to aviation website Aerotime Hub, British Airways operated its first-ever passenger flight using recycled cooking oil in an Airbus A320neo on Sept. 14, 2021.

Flight BA1476 flew from London to Glasgow and produced 62% less carbon dioxide emissions than a similar flight a decade ago, British Airways said in a press statement. 

It’s hard to say if the event would have pleased eco-activist “Glum Greta” Thunberg, but the airline said that it was the combination of the fuel used — partly made from recycled cooking oil — and, these factors:

  • British Airways used an Airbus A320neo, which it calls “the quietest and most fuel-efficient short-haul aircraft” in its fleet;
  • British air traffic control provider NATS directed the plane in continuous climb and descent to avoid unnecessary fuel burn, leveling off;
  • An electric Mototok vehicle, powered by Heathrow’s bank of renewable energy, was used to push the plane back;
  • Only one engine was used to taxi along the runway for takeoff. The second engine was also turned off after landing;
  • Aircraft computer systems determined the perfect flying altitude for fuel efficiency, given the plane’s weight and wind data, and climb speeds were optimized in advance.

Although the 1 hour 30 minute flight still produced 6.4 tons of carbon dioxide, the flight demonstrated the progress that the aviation industry has made in its attempts to decarbonize ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021 (known as Cop26) in November.

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“This flight offered a practical demonstration of the progress we’re making in our carbon reduction journey,” British Airways chief executive Sean Doyle said. 

“By working together with our industry partners we’ve delivered a 62% improvement in emissions reductions compared to a decade ago.

“This marks real progress in our efforts to decarbonize and shows our determination to continue innovating, working with governments and industry, and accelerating the adoption of new low-carbon solutions.”

While this scheduled commercial flight was considered a success, British Airways customers shouldn’t expect this on other flights in the immediate future.

The airline is aiming to achieve net-zero carbon emissions across the board by 2050.

BA is not the only airline that has chosen to use eco-friendly fuels to power its fleet.

In May of this year, Air France has carried out an Airbus A350-900 service to Montreal powered by a biofuel sourced from waste cooking oil.

Jet fuel produced from biomass or synthetically from renewable power has the potential to slash carbon emissions, albeit at a heavy cost by comparison to the price of kerosene.

Starting in 2022, flights departing from France will be required to use 1% SAF (sustainable aviation fuel), ahead of European Union goals to reach 2% by 2025 and 5 percent by 2030 under the bloc’s Green Deal policy.

But traditional network airlines have sought to exempt long-haul flights, arguing that a Europe-only SAF requirement could expose them to unfair foreign competition. 

While used cooking oil is cheap and relatively easy to refine, “there is a relatively limited amount of that compared to what the need is,” Jim McMillan, chief engineer at the National Bioenergy Center in Golden, Colo., said.

In other words, as much as people love French fries, they don’t eat enough of them to sustain commercial air travel with the leftover grease.

To solve this problem, biofuel suppliers are starting to make fuel from cheap, abundant organic waste.

That could mean waste from farms, such as corn leaves, wheat stalks and almond hulls. Or it could mean trash found in city dumps, such as paper, cardboard and leftover food.

In California, officials are also looking at turning forest debris into biofuel, instead of burning the underbrush, the Joint BioEnergy Institute, said.

Sources: Aerotime Hub, USA Today, Global Times, NBC News