Why You’re Never Going to See Bio-fuel Powering a Commercial Airplane

The ‘good old days’ – four J57 engines under load at take-off.

When airlines feel a desperate need for some good press, there are several standard things they can do.

They can offer up any empty bit of corporate jingoism that is dutifully parroted by a slavish and sycophantic press, dependent on airline advertising dollars.

They can talk about their latest multi-million dollar cabin redesigns, secure in the knowledge no reporters will pivot to the inconvenient truth of ever smaller seats being jam-packed ever more tightly into their expensive cabin redesigns.

They can boast of new in-flight cuisine and wine-lists, coordinated by a big name chef, unworried by the danger of anyone pointing out that even the very best airline food is the sort of food that would never ever be served at the big name chef’s own restaurant.

They can announce new ‘simplified’ and ‘lower’ fares, smug in the unchallenged irony of describing fares with more rules, fewer inclusions and more fees and penalties as being simplified and lower.

They can talk about bringing new service to new cities, even though the ‘new’ service used to be provided until it was cancelled, and even though it has yet to be restarted and might be cancelled, again, even before it starts.

Or they can talk about new trials of eco-friendly jetfuel (that sounds a bit like an oxymoron, but who cares in the gloriously uncritical world of airline publicity).  They can rabbit on endlessly about carbon emissions (or lack thereof) and using recycled just-about-anything to make the fuel, and proudly proclaim the outstanding success of their trials.

Yes, there are many other golden oldie stories they can also bring up too, but you get the picture.  The one we’re here to pick apart today is the ‘bio-fuel’ story.

First, though – here’s a recent example – ‘British Airways plans turning trash into biofuel for its jets‘.  Bravo, BA, right?  Even more impressively, this new plant is expected to create enough fuel to power every single BA 787 flying between London and San Jose and between London and New Orleans.  That’s so wonderful it makes your head spin, doesn’t it.

But, when the dizziness recedes, and we can see things in clear focus again, let’s parse the article more carefully.  There is no promise or commitment or timeline mentioned.  Merely a lot of qualifying terms such as ‘planning to’ and ‘potential’ and ‘currently being assessed’ and ‘by the year 2050’.  Those qualifiers are just in the first two paragraphs; we haven’t even got to more lovely escape phrases later in the article such as ‘it is estimated’ and ‘when up and running’ and ‘expected to’.

Let’s also consider the marvel of being able to power every single BA 787 between LON-SJC and LON-MSY.  Curious cities to choose, don’t you think?  But there’s a reason, because while there are single daily flights between London and San Jose, there are only four between London and New Orleans each week.  So, we’re talking about enough fuel for 787s to fly 112,000 miles a week, or 5.8 million miles a year.

Well, that’s still a lot of flying, isn’t it.  Or, is it?  BA’s a big airline, with 290 airplanes.  I estimate they fly 560 million miles a year in total.

So the bio-fuel story?  If it ever comes to pass, it boils down to BA might possibly replace 1% of its fuel needs with bio-fuel, maybe some time in the uncertain future.  Is that really worth a headline story, or perhaps nothing more than a footnote mention somewhere else?

Here’s another story also from this week – ‘Airline industry could fly thousands of miles on biofuel from a new promising feedstock‘.

Call me a cynic if you like, but what is special with a 747 being able to fly 10 hours on bio-jet fuel, when it could fly 20+ hours on regular jet fuel?  Is that something to be proud of, or is it actually ‘negative progress’?

In fact, this claim hints at a probable problem – lower energy density in the bio-fuel, meaning you get fewer miles per gallon from it than from regular jet-fuel.  This is a deal-breaker of a problem because that also means you get fewer miles per pound of fuel, and you know how obsessive the airlines are at saving every possible ounce of avoidable weight.

But the biggest problem isn’t mentioned at all in the article.  Instead, the article reports a researcher boasting that the fuel’s cost – an estimated $5.31/gallon – is less than the prices of most other bio-fuels.  You might think that is good, but the thing is, this or any other biofuel isn’t having to compete against other biofuels.  It is having to compete against oil-based fuels – essentially kerosene, currently used to power jet engines.  Guess how much the airlines currently pay for regular jet fuel?

According to the US airline lobbying group, who has yet to meet a jet fuel price it didn’t automatically consider to be way too high, in September 2017, airlines are paying about $1.80/gallon for jet fuel.

So are we to believe that airlines are eagerly rushing to these researchers, keen to pay three times as much for fuel which will only fly them half as far per gallon?  In other words, quite apart from destroying the necessary operational flying ranges of their planes (forget about nonstop trans-Pacific flights) they’ll end up paying effectively six times as much for their fuel.

We can only guess what sort of sized fuel surcharge the airlines would choose to impose on us if that were to happen!

There’s more.  How could we write an article about airlines and their inflated boasts, and in particular, their apparent desire to become eco-friendly and power their planes on outrageously expensive fuel-stocks, without mentioning dear old Sir Richard Branson and the airline he formerly owned, Virgin Atlantic.

In early 2008 he demonstrated his amazing ability to garner headlines around the world by boasting about ‘a vital breakthrough’.  Virgin Atlantic operated ‘the first flight by a commercial jet that was partly powered by biofuel’.  Details here.

Let’s first examine what ‘partly powered’ means.  One of a 747’s four engines was partially driven by a biofuel tank that was providing 20% of the engine’s power – so in total, 5% of the total plane’s power was coming from bio-fuel.  A ‘vital breakthrough’?  Only in Sir Richard’s hyperbolic universe.

But wait, Sir Richard is always the gift that keeps on giving.  He went on to predict that within ten years airplanes could be routinely flying on ‘plant power’.  Well, those ten years expire in February next year, some five months from now.  How’s that prediction looking, so far, Sir Richard?

Actually, that’s a question already partially answered.  In September 2016, Virgin got excited on its in-house blog, reporting they’d just received a fuel sample of 1500 gallons of a new bio-fuel.  Wow – 1500 gallons!  That’s enough to power a 747, like the one used for their earlier trial, for about 300 miles (assuming a standard energy density) or possibly many fewer miles if the energy density is lower.  A 747 can hold 60,000 gallons of fuel.  Eight and a half years into Branson’s ten-year timeline, and they’re excitedly getting a 1500 gallon sample?

When asked to (re)predict the future, the article expressed the future timeline in terms of ‘the next few decades’.  That’s a much safer prediction.

The great thing about distant dates is that the people making the predictions have been promoted or retired long before they can be held accountable for their promises.  As for Sir Richard, having just sold down his holdings in Virgin Atlantic to now a remaining 20% share, he has been happily quiet for a while.

The reality of all these microscopic ‘trials’ and ‘tests’ and ‘plans’?  You can probably guess where I’m headed.  But let’s ask a truly successful airline CEO for the real scoop on bio-fuels.  Straight talking Michael O’Leary, CEO of Europe’s largest and probably most profitable airline, Ryanair, got it right when he said in 2015 at an aviation conference

It’s all a PR stunt.  Nobody is really flying around the world on aircraft powered by biofuel, it’s generally all powered on kerosene.  The rest is a PR stunt designed to appeal to some middle-aged, middle-classed person worrying about the future.

Don’t be fooled.  The airlines will never substitute current oil based jet fuel with any other fuel that will present as a greater net cost to them.

Lastly, to state the ugly obvious, if/when alternate fuels should ever come along which are cheaper/better than kerosene, the airlines won’t be converting to use them for any reason whatsoever other than saving money and generating greater profit.  The airlines are no more the environment’s friend than they’re our friend.

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