Powered by SAF, Airbus China flies into sustainable aviation

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Airbus' final assembly line in Tianjin. An Airbus A320neo operated by China Eastern Airlines using 5 percent of sustainable aviation fuel blend entered service in the city on Oct 12. [Photo/Xinhua]

Aircraft manufacturer Airbus has embarked on a new sustainable aviation chapter as an A320neo aircraft has been recently delivered to China Eastern Airlines, with the aviation fuel used for the delivery flight blended by 5 percent of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

The plane took off at the delivery center in Tianjin and landed in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, on Oct 12.

The SAF for the delivery flight is produced locally from used cooking oil by Zhejiang province-based Sinopec Zhenhai Refining & Chemical Co, a subsidiary of State-owned enterprise Sinopec. It is the first batch that was made by the facility, which is the only facility in China to receive certification.

Sinopec received its certificate from the Civil Aviation Administration of China, which allows the company to sell its bio jet fuel to aviation operators across the country. Airbus said it is in discussions with its Chinese partners regarding the possibility of setting up a closer production base or place to store the SAF near Tianjin to better reduce carbon emissions.

SAF is a sustainably produced aviation fuel that is made from feedstock ranging from used fat, oil and grease to municipal and forestry waste. Compared to fossil jet fuel, SAF has been demonstrated to reduce up to 80 percent of carbon emissions. It is considered a key enabler to contribute to the decarbonization of the aviation industry, Airbus said.

"The first SAF delivery flight of an Airbus aircraft in Tianjin marks a historic milestone for Airbus and particularly for us in China. It is a great step toward our vision of contributing to sustainable aviation as a long-term reliable partner in China," said George Xu, executive vice-president of Airbus and CEO of Airbus China.

"Thanks to the consensus on sustainability reached between our partners and us, we will be able to offer such sustainable solutions to all the customers taking delivery from our Tianjin facilities," Xu said.

Next, Airbus aims to partner with more operators in China to fly commercially with SAF to further support the green aviation strategy in the country, it said.

China proposed goals to accelerate its process of reaching its carbon emissions peak by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.

Currently, all Airbus commercial aircraft are capable of flying with SAF accounting for 50 percent of a blend mixed with kerosene. By the end of 2030, the company aims to be capable of using 100 percent SAF in flights. Since March 2021, it has accomplished 100 percent SAF test flights on A319neo, A350 and A380 aircraft.

Nevertheless, the production of SAF comes with some challenges. Hundreds of millions of metric tons of SAF will be required to contribute to aviation carbon neutrality, but the current production volume is around a couple of hundred thousand tons annually.

Production costs of such jet fuel are also more expensive than regular kerosene, making it a clear concern for airlines' ability to absorb the costs. Bringing long-term visibility on the production side and maintaining a level playing field for airlines will be determinants in SAF ramp-up, Airbus said.

"A significant amount of transformation or the creation of production plants will be required to achieve production ramp-up and then it will require more investment into the SAF business," said Steven Le Moing, sustainable aviation fuel manager of the environmental affairs department at Airbus.

Meanwhile, global aviation industry players are promoting carbon reduction measures in powering commercial aircraft to ultimately achieve carbon-neutral growth. In China, US aircraft manufacturer Boeing has partnered with Chinese airlines in testing flights and research institutions in developing SAF.

"Carbon emission reduction in the civil aviation sector has been a long and continuing process, and positive achievements have been gradually emerging," said Yu Zhanfu, partner and vice-president of the China unit at consultancy Roland Berger.

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