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United and Alaska Airlines Announce Biofuel Regularly Schedule Flights This Week

Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 with Mount Rainier in the background. Photo by Brandon Farris.

Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 with Mount Rainier in the background. Photo by Brandon Farris.

Alaska Airlines announced yesterday that they will operate 75 regularly schedule flights, using renewable bio-fuels starting tomorrow, November 9th. The maiden flight will leave from Seattle (SEA) to Washington, DC (DCA) and also Portland (PDX). The airline will fuel the aircraft using a 20% blend of biofuel made from used cooking oil.

Alaska is hoping that these flights will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 10%, which is equal to removing 26 cars from the road for a year. The impact of these few flights might seem minor, but if Alaska were to use the 20% biofuel mixture on all their flights, it would be the equivalent of removing 64,000 cars off of the road.

“This is a historic week for U.S. aviation.” Alaska Air Group Chairman and CEO Bill Ayer stated. “Commercial airplanes are equipped and ready for biofuels. They will enable us to fly cleaner, foster job growth in a new industry, and can insulate airlines from the volatile price swings of conventional fuel to help make air travel more economical. To the biofuels industry, we say: If you build it, we will buy it.”

The fuel mixture is being supplied by SkyNRG and made by Dynamic Fuels (who is in a partnership with Tyson Foods). These flights by Alaska are part of the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFN) initiative, which was launched in July 2010 by Alaska Airlines, Boeing, Portland International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Spokane International Airport and Washington State University to promote aviation biofuel development.

United Airlines's first commercial advanced biofuel flight using a Boeing 737-800 (N76516) takes off from Houston yesterday. Photo by United.

United Airlines's first commercial advanced biofuel flight using a Boeing 737-800 (N76516) takes off from Houston yesterday. Photo by United.

Although there is a lot of excitement in the northwest for Alaska’s first flight on Wednesday, United Airlines operated a scheduled flight using biofuels yesterday, the 7th of November. Flight 1403, a Boeing 737-800, left from Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Aiport (IAH) at about 10:30am local time for Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD).

“United is taking a significant step forward to advance the use of environmentally responsible and cost-efficient alternative fuels,” said Pete McDonald, United’s executive vice president and chief operations officer. “Sustainable biofuels, produced on a large scale at an economically viable price, can one day play a meaningful role in powering everyone’s trip on an airline.”

United also announced that they have signed a letter of intent to negotiate the purchase of 20 million gallons of biofuel per year, starting as early as 2014

United beat Alaska for a revenue biofuel flight by two days, but it is not clear when or if United will continue the biofuel flights. An email to United to get clarification on their future biofuel flights has not been returned by the time of posting this story.

Boeing Says Bio-Fueled Aircraft Are Coming — Soon.

Test Pilot Captain Keith Pattie, right, Air New Zealand's Chief Pilot Captain David Morgan, left, pose with the company's CEO , Rob Fyfe before their test of a Bio Fuel mixture in the left hand engine of Boeing 747 in Auckland, New Zealand

Test Pilot Captain Keith Pattie, right, Air New Zealand's Chief Pilot Captain David Morgan, left, pose with the company's CEO , Rob Fyfe before their test of a Bio Fuel mixture in the left hand engine of Boeing 747 in Auckland, New Zealand

Back in late 2008 I talked about how Boeing was working with Continental Airlines on an algae-based bio fuel.

On Thursday Bill Blover, managing director of environmental strategy for Boeing Commercial Planes stated the new fuel could be approved and in commercial flights as early as early 2010. He states the technology is ready, but there isn’t enough plant stock yet to create enough fuel.

The New York Times reportsthat Boeing has been working with four airlines on four different fuel mixtures, “Virgin Atlantic flight using a coconut- and babassu-derived biofuel blend; an Air New Zealand flight using a jatropha-derived biofuel blend; a Continental Airlines flight using a blend of algae- and jatropha-derived biofuel; and a Japan Airlines flight using an algae-, jatropha- and camelina-derived biofuel blend.”

Air New Zealand showed a 1% improvement in fuel efficiency which might not sound like a lot, but a large jet burning fuel on a 12 hour flight, equates to about a savings of 1.43 metric tons of fuel and 4.5 metric tons of reduced carbon dioxide. Multiply that by the amount of flights going on globally on any given day, and that ads up to a lot of savings.

Even though we might start seeing some new biofuel in some jets starting in early 2010, they will still have to fight production ability and being cost effective compared to jet fuel and if the economy is down, it is most likely airlines won’t be willing to pay a premium for green fuel.

Image: AP Photo/NZ Herald, Paul Estcourt