25 January 2022

GreenAir News

Reporting on aviation and the environment

Qantas and Air New Zealand prioritise sustainable aviation fuels for their decarbonisation strategies

Asia-Pacific neighbours Qantas and Air New Zealand have announced significant new decarbonisation initiatives, both of them heavily reliant on sustainable aviation fuel and both advocating establishment of local SAF production, reports Tony Harrington. Qantas will purchase up to 30 million litres of blended SAF from bp for flights from London Heathrow Airport over a three-year period commencing early in 2022. The Australian airline has committed to buy an initial 10 million litres from early next year and has options to take the same volumes in 2023 and 2024 as part of a strategic partnership with the oil company. Air New Zealand has committed that by 2030, SAF will represent 10% of its total fuel uplift. It has also announced plans to set a new, science-based carbon reduction target, which requires an absolute reduction in emissions without reliance on carbon offsets. The carrier has also detailed a fleet renewal plan which promises a switch to electric of hydrogen propulsion for its regional flights by 2030.

Qantas is reinstating scheduled flights to London, following the Australian government’s recent decision to ease international border restrictions and increasing relaxation by state and territory governments of caps on international passenger arrivals. It will operate nonstop flights between London and Australia with Boeing 787-9 aircraft, and one-stop services from Heathrow to Australia via Singapore with Airbus A380s, which are now being recalled from storage. The SAF to be used by Qantas on these flights will be produced with certified bio feedstock from used cooking oil and, or, other waste products, and mixed with conventional jet fuel, representing about 15% of the airline’s total annual fuel uplift out of Heathrow, and cutting its flight carbon emissions by around 10%.

The airline is also actively discussing similar deals at other major international destinations, specifically referencing Los Angeles. SAF is not yet available in Australia, but Qantas said there was a strong case for local production, for which it intends to be the biggest customer.

“We know that climate change is incredibly important for our customers, employees and investors, and it is a major focus for the national carrier as we come out of a difficult couple of years,” said Andrew Parker, Chief Sustainability Officer for the Qantas Group. He said the use of sustainable aviation fuel was essential for the airline to meet its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and an interim target for 2030, for which a package of initiatives will be announced in the first half of 2022.

High among these will be confirmation of orders and purchase rights for up to 134 new Airbus A320neo and A220 family twinjets, which the airline has just nominated as its choice of replacement for its ageing fleet of Boeing 737-800s and Boeing 717s. Beginning with firm orders for 20 A321XLR and 20 A220-300 aircraft, with deliveries commencing in 2024, the deal will deliver fuel savings of 15-20% over the current domestic jet fleet, and commensurate reductions in emissions. Discussions with manufacturers also focused on the ability of the new jets to use sustainable aviation fuel as quickly as possible.

“Zero emission technology like electric aircraft or green hydrogen are still a very long way off for aviation, and even further away for long-haul flights like London to Australia,” said Parker. “SAF and high-quality carbon offsetting are therefore critical on the path to net zero. Aviation biofuels typically deliver around an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions on a lifecycle basis compared to the jet fuel it is replacing and is the most significant tool airlines have to reduce their impact on the environment.” He reiterated the industry’s estimate that SAF will account for 65% of the decarbonisation measures needed for aviation to reach net zero 2050.

“The technology is already tried and tested and it can be used in the aircraft we have now,” stated Parker, “which is why government and industry overseas are investing heavily to build their own SAF industries. Given the importance of aviation to Australia, and the distances we travel, there’s a huge opportunity to build a local SAF industry here. The Qantas Group would be its biggest customer, and we’ve already committed AUD$50 million ($35m) in seed funding, but it’s going to take a concerted effort from industry and government to make this happen.”

Qantas is also one of nine oneworld alliance members which recently agreed collectively to introduce SAF on their flights from San Francisco, for a period of up to seven years, commencing in 2024. Although Qantas and its low-cost sibling Jetstar have operated demonstration flights using SAF, the BP deal at Heathrow is the first ongoing commitment by an Australian airline to use SAF on scheduled services. The airline said such volume deals were crucial to helping bring down the cost of SAF, currently around three times the price of conventional fossil fuels.

Martin Thomsen, Senior Vice President, Air bp, said the company aspired to become a leading supplier of sustainable aviation fuel. “We are committed to working with customers to scale up its use,” he added. “We believe it is one of the key routes to reducing carbon emissions in the aviation industry. Selling SAF to Qantas at London Heathrow demonstrates not only the aim of both companies towards decarbonising aviation, but also doing so at one of the most important airports in the world.”

Air New Zealand is in lock step with Qantas on the importance of sustainable aviation fuel, and in its newly-released 2021 Sustainability Report made clear that without SAF, it could not achieve its 2050 decarbonisation targets. In his foreword to the report, the airline’s Chief Executive Officer, Greg Foran, said the airline was in close discussion with the New Zealand government on developing domestic SAF production capacity, and had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to determine the feasibility of doing so, particularly for powering long-haul flights. The airline wants to see domestic SAF production occurring in five to seven years, and has called for the establishment of a public-private advisory body on aviation decarbonisation to consider and advise on the policy settings needed to make SAF available in New Zealand.  

Sir Jonathon Porritt, Chair of Air New Zealand’s Sustainability Advisory Panel, said: “Over the last couple of years, interest in sustainable aviation fuels has gone from a few niche players providing vanishingly small volumes to a rapidly-maturing global industry enthusiastically signed up to a target of providing 10% of the volumes required by 2030 – from a few millions of gallons to many billions in just eight years. As a small country at the end of the world, New Zealand will always be a price-taker. By 2030, it will be the big players in the industry who will be determining that price. The only way of managing that risk is for New Zealand to ensure its own, indigenous SAF capability – and that means taking big decisions in a clear and accountable way over the next couple of years.”

But unlike Qantas, Air New Zealand’s future fleet plan does include electric and hydrogen powered aircraft. Air New Zealand is actively progressing research into both as it seeks to replace its current fleet of Q300 turboprops, and has signed two MoUs to investigate alternatives, one with Airbus on hydrogen technologies and another with ATR Regional Aircraft on battery/hybrid designs. As well, partnerships are being formed with “future energy stakeholders” to enable both battery-electric and green hydrogen operations.

“To truly decarbonise aviation, we’ll need both SAF and battery-electric, hybrid design, and/or hydrogen-electric aircraft,” says the airline’s sustainability report. “Our ambition is to be operating these zero-emission aircraft on our regional network from 2030, or as soon as feasible. New Zealand has a unique opportunity to be a world leader in the adoption of zero-emissions aircraft given the country’s high percentage of renewable energy. These aircraft will also have the potential to enable us to operate new, shorter routes, increasing connectivity for regional New Zealand.”

Air New Zealand has just phased out its fleet of Boeing 777-200ER aircraft and has announced it will retire its larger B777-300ERs by 2027. It already operates next-generation B787-9 aircraft on medium- and long-haul routes, and will add larger B787-10s. The airline has also introduced narrowbody Airbus A320neo jets, will introduce A321neos in 2022 and is adding more ATR 72-600 turboprops for regional services.

Additionally, to incrementally reduce fuel burn, Air New Zealand is progressing a programme to optimise aircraft cabin weights, while on the ground it is increasing the use of electric power units and pre-conditioned air to help reduce the use of aircraft auxiliary power units and cut their emissions.

The airline has also set an ambitious target to divert 65% of its waste away from landfill disposal by 2023 – a substantial increase from the 41.3% it prevented from going to landfill in 2021 – through development and implementation of new waste minimisation initiatives. Among these is a programme called Future Aircraft Cabin Experience (FACE), which includes removing 28 million single-use plastic items each year, adoption of flight weight reduction targets, and increased use of redesigned catering items made from lightweight and renewable sources. 

In the airline’s sustainability report, Porritt said sustainability measures by airlines needed to be meaningful – not just talk. “All airlines’ social licence to operate will now become increasingly hard to earn and increasingly dependent on actions, not on fine words,” he said. “For most people, it may previously have been a rhetorical flourish to talk about sustainability as mission-critical for airlines. Now it’s for real – as in which airlines will survive and which won’t.”

Note: This article was updated on December 17 to reflect new Airbus order by Qantas

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