Leaders See Need for More Buy-in on Sustainable Fuel

It’s considered a key to business aviation’s future, but aircraft operators remain hesitant.

Heading into 2022, business aviation leaders have been encouraged about progress that is being made on the sustainability front. But at the same time, these leaders are aware that much remains to be done not only to advance initiatives such as sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) but to attract the buy-in of aircraft operators.

During the National Business Aviation Association convention in Las Vegas last October, the leaders of NBAA and other industry associations formally unveiled a new sustainability pledge: net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. This builds on a series of goals the industry established in 2009 to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2050, increase fuel efficiency by 2 percent per year from 2010 to 2020, and achieve carbon-neutral growth by 2020. Well on its way to achieving those earlier marks and, with fresh technologies in the offing, the leaders of the associations expressed confidence that the new, bolder target could be reached.

Map Shows Where To Find Sustainable Fuel

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Map Shows Where To Find Sustainable Fuel

The interactive online tool shows verified locations worldwide with SAF available for business aircraft.

Getting there will require advancements on multiple fronts. SAF, carbon-offset credits, and book-and-claim are viewed as the most immediate necessary steps. The book-and-claim process allows customers who wish to use SAF but are not in an area where it is available (in the U.S., mainly West Coast locations near SAF production facilities) to purchase the fuel and receive credit for it under emission accounting programs. The fuel is then dispensed into and ultimately burned by another aircraft elsewhere.

However, much of the business aviation community appears unsure about moving to SAF. A JetNet IQ survey asked respondents whether they agreed with a statement that they would seriously consider flying with SAF in the next 24 months. According to the results—released during the National Air Transportation Association’s (NATA) Aviation Business Conference in November in Miami—Just 10.4 percent of the respondents in North America said they “strongly agree" while another 20.4 percent said they “somewhat agree." Moreover, 25.4 percent in North America said they “strongly disagree."

In Europe, which has been viewed as a leader on the sustainability front, the numbers appear only slightly better, with 11.5 percent saying they “strongly agree,” 21.2 percent saying they “somewhat agree,” and 17.3 percent saying they “strongly disagree.”

With "strongly" and "somewhat" agreeing depicted on a chart in blue, JetNet IQ creator and president of Rolland Vincent Associates Rolland Vincent remarked, “The blue isn't as blue as I think any of us might want it to be, or some think it should be.” Vincent also observed that the differences between the geographical regions “aren’t as stark” as people might have believed.

He noted that “I don’t think we can embrace [SAF] quickly enough” but also conceded that supply is an issue and overall “there’s a lot of work to do as an industry.

In fact, one of the early adopters in the SAF arena, California-headquartered Clay Lacy Aviation, has seen slow but growing demand from operators. Scott Cutshall, the company’s senior vice president of development and sustainability, told attendees at BJT sister publication AIN's Building a Sustainable Flight Department forum in Dallas in November that Clay Lacy began carrying the fuel in April at its Southern California FBOs and has since sold less than 10,000 gallons.

When the FBOs began to offer SAF, “we started getting calls," Cutshall said. "People have a lot of questions, [but] it hasn't started to translate into purchases until the last few months.

“We haven't seen the volume of or uptake that we were originally hoping for,” he added, but he did express optimism that there will be an uptick this year as more operators budget for SAF. “I think we're going to start to see greater adoption,” Cutshall said.

A narrowing price differential could help to make that happen. By November, a 30 percent SAF blend cost 56 cents more per gallon than conventional jet-A in Van Nuys. 

NATA president and CEO Timothy Obitts, speaking at his association’s Aviation Business Conference, underscored the importance of adopting sustainable fuel. “On [reducing carbon] emissions, sustainable aviation fuel is a silver bullet to help us.” 

Ford von Weise, director and global head of aircraft finance at Citi Private Bank, spelled out concerns regarding public perception of the business aviation industry during Corporate Jet Investor Miami 2021, ahead of the NATA conference: “We are a huge, monstrous target," he said. "Why? Because the individual carbon footprint of every one of our clients is outsized. It's huge. Why else? Because we are fat cats, supposedly.” 

He warned that business aviation organizations face significant perception, regulatory, financing, and other risks if they don’t build a sustainability plan into their business model, and he noted that his institution is evaluating how it looks at risk. A piece of that is climate, environmental, and social risk management, he said, and he called SAF a key part of the solution to these risks.

As for the regulatory front, Europe and the U.S. alike are moving toward broader environmental mandates with similar goals, and an array of potential taxes, incentives, and research projects are under discussion, according to GAMA director of government affairs Marc Ehudin, who also spoke during the AIN sustainability forum in Dallas. Ehudin pointed out that Europe is developing a "Fit for 55" proposal that calls for a reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 with an ambition of being a climate-neutral continent by 2050. It hopes to achieve this through mandates, one of which would involve a carbon tax that would begin at the equivalent of $1.78 per gallon of fuel for business aviation in 2023 and continue from there.

Meanwhile, the U.K. is looking at its Jet Zero plan to achieve net-zero for aviation by 2050. This includes a flexible outlook, with multiple solutions, international leadership, and partnerships. In the U.S., stepped-up funding for research programs has been floated, as have initiatives to promote the expansion of SAF.

From a fuel provider's perspective, Lindsey Grant, manager of general aviation in the U.S. for Phillips 66, noted the steep investment required from the fuel makers, including logistics, tankering, and transportation, but she added that the industry needs to show a commitment to accepting the product. A lack of interest because of cost worries “is not going to help incentivize producers to produce it. And until you’ve got that incentive there’s going to be a premium with it.”

Like others, she noted that companies looking to lower their carbon footprint should be particularly interested in using SAF. “You are not going to get the benefit of the claim [of lowering an organization’s footprint] without paying that additional premium.”

Darren Fuller, vice president of business development for business aviation at World Fuel Services, agreed, telling attendees at the AIN sustainability forum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that supply remains a big impediment to wider adoption of sustainable fuel and that “operators need to make big public commitments to SAF—this is required for investment in SAF production.”

Even when SAF supply rises, it won’t be available at every airport, so Fuller said operators will need to use book-and-claim as a strategy to reduce their carbon footprint.