UK first as Thomson Airways' three-year biofuel commercial flight programme finally takes off
Thomson Airways aircraft being refuelled with biofuel blend prior to flight
Thu 6 Oct 2011 – A Thomson Airways Boeing 757-200 today conducted the UK’s first commercial flight to use biofuel. Using a 50/50 blend of used cooking oil and conventional jet kerosene in one engine, the aircraft will make a four-hour flight from Birmingham Airport to Arrecife in the Canary Islands. The flight marks the start of regular daily flights using a dedicated aircraft as part of trials to quantify any differences in performance or fuel burn of the engine when compared with the non-biofuel engine. The inaugural flight was originally scheduled for the end of July but was postponed due to “unforeseen delays” in the fuel delivery. Two UK environmental groups have condemned the biofuel flight as “self-seeking and irresponsible greenwash” but the airline has hit back at the criticism.
The biofuel blend has been supplied by Netherlands-based SkyNRG, which has already supplied fuel for the KLM and Finnair biofuel flights that took place in July. Thomson says it will work with SkyNRG and its other strategic partners over the next three years to increase the proportion of jet biofuel it uses and drive down the cost of the fuel.
As a member of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group, Thomson has also pledged to use feedstocks that do not compete with food or natural resources and have significantly lower total lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fossil jet fuel. In addition, says the airline, once the supply chain develops, feedstocks grown in developing areas must have a positive socio-economic benefit to local communities and areas of high conservation value and local eco-systems must not be cleared.
Thomson and its parent TUI Travel have called on the UK government and other European states to help accelerate the pace of development of sustainable aviation biofuels and incentivise investment in R&D, loan guarantees and other fiscal measures.
However, today’s biofuel flight has been criticised by environmental groups AirportWatch and Biofuelwatch as “dangerous greenwash”.
“Thomson Airways are using spurious claims about the merits of ‘sustainable biofuels’ to try and get the Government to grant yet more financial support and preferential treatment for the aviation industry,” said Sarah Clayton of AirportWatch. “There is nothing sustainable about competing with other biofuel markets for the obviously limited supplies of used cooking oil and tallow.
“This merely means that others, finding increased competition for supplies, will then simply use more palm and soya oil instead, thus causing more forests to be destroyed. And there is nothing sustainable about worsening existing land conflicts in Brazil so that companies like Thomson can keep expanding.”
A spokesman for Thomson Airways said the claims made by AirportWatch and Biofuelwatch were “totally inaccurate”.
“They wrongly state that ‘Thomson Airways have now conceded that they will have to use virgin plant oil, initially from camelina from North America and babassu nuts from Brazil ...’. The biofuel purchased by Thomson Airways is sourced entirely from used cooking oil. No animal tallow, camelina or babassu was used,” he said.
The spokesman also pointed out a WWF Energy Report had recognised that bioenergy was currently the only suitable replacement for fossil fuels in transport applications that required liquid fuels with a high energy density such as aviation.
Christian Cull, Communications Director for TUI UK and Ireland, said: “We realise we won’t please everyone, and that at present the aviation biofuel supply chain is not perfect. We are sincere in our commitment and are proud to be flying with biofuel. Whilst these are early days, we are in this for the long haul because we believe it is the right thing to do.
Responding to the environmental groups’ claim that Thomson was using the biofuel flights as part of a lobby effort to win more state support and subsidies for aviation, the airline said it firmly believed the adoption of sustainable biofuels by airlines would help achieve the UK government’s carbon budget that commits to reducing carbon emissions by 50% by 2025.
“We are aware of the negative impact of using biofuels irresponsibly, and that is why Thomson Airways believes the industry must continue to work together with initiatives such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels to find more sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel,” added the Thomson spokesman. “The aviation industry as a whole cannot stand still and do nothing.”
Jet fuel supplier SkyNRG is a joint venture made up of KLM, North Sea Group and Spring Associates. It is advised by an independent Sustainability Board that consists of two NGOs (including WWF-NL) and an academic institute on sustainability issues related to the proposed feedstock and estate selections. SkyNRG has issued its own statement (download here) in response to the AirportWatch/Biofuelwatch criticism.