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European carriers move on biofuels; KLM and Lufthansa lead the way


Europe’s largest consumers of jet fuel have made bold steps towards the use of biofuels with Lufthansa launching the world’s first commercial service using biofuels. The move is a great leap forward in the commercialisation of alternative fuels and will ultimately reduce carbon emissions and introduce long-awaited competition to oil as the sole source of jet fuel.

Lufthansa, KLM, Thomson Airways (TUI Travel) and Finnair are among the first airlines to announce plans to use biofuels on commercial services. KLM operated the world’s first revenue service partially powered by biofuel on 29-Jun-2011, on its Amsterdam-Paris CDG service. A 50-50 mix of traditional kerosene and biofuel, which was derived from used cooking oil, powered the B737NG’s CFM56 engines. The airline stated the flight operated “exactly the same” as regular, kerosene-powered flights. This same raw material will be used in the flights scheduled for Sep-2011, when KLM plans to commence the first of 200 services on the “Paris-Amsterdam Hubway”. KLM’s biofuel was supplied by Dynamic Fuels and distributed to the carrier via SkyNRG, a consortium co-founded by KLM in 2009 with North Sea Group and Spring Associates.

There has been some jostling in Europe between carriers involved in the initiative about which airline would commence using biofuels first. Lufthansa was slated to commence revenue services using a biofuel-kerosene blend in Apr-2011 but was forced to postpone the service while ASTM, an international standards body, approved the use of hydrotreated renewable jet fuel in commercial aircraft. KLM pipped Lufthansa in late Jun-2011 after the Dutch transport ministry approved KLM’s one-off Amsterdam-Paris CDG service using the 50-50 blend. Full ASTM approval for KLM is expected by Sep-2011 for the launch of scheduled services.

Lufthansa makes first scheduled move

On Friday 16-Jul-2011, Lufthansa launched the world’s first airline to use the biofuel-kersene blend for scheduled, revenue service. The German flag will operate Frankfurt-Hamburg services using a new IAE V2500-powered A321 for the next six months. One engine on the aircraft will use a 50% share of biosynthetic kerosene, which Lufthansa’s supplier Neste Oil sourced from feedstocks such as inedible plants and wood chips. Biofuel will thus provide 25% of the aircraft’s power. The six-month trial will provide insight into the commercial, longer-term use of biofuel and biofuel blends and allow Lufthansa to generate measurement data, including comparative fuel performance and fuel consumption.

Lufthansa plans to operate 1200 flights using the fuel blend and avoid 1,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. The trial is costing Lufthansa EUR6.6 million. "It's the starting point of environmentally friendly flying," said Lufthansa's head of aviation biofuel, Joachim Buse, said on the first service, which the airline estimates will save one ton of carbon dioxide emissions. "It's a clear signal that the aviation industry is taking steps to mitigate against climate change." Mr Buse said that competition issues have proved an obstacle in the certification process and prevented airlines from working more closely together during the research phase. He also said there could be opportunities ahead under the Star Alliance brand.

A key step in ongoing research

TUI Travel is another key proponent of biofuel initiatives and its UK-based subsidiary Thomson Airways will use cooking-oil derived biofuels on a passenger service from Birmingham to Palma de Mallorca on 28-Jul-2011. Finnair will launch a service from Amsterdam to its Helsinki base using a biofuel blend in Jul-2011. The sector would be the world’s longest biofuel-powered flight, with both engines to run on a 50:50 blend of biofuel derived from recycled vegetable oil and kerosene. Finnair hopes to operate "at least three" Amsterdam-Helsinki services using the biofuel, and hopes that "the adoption of 'green routes' by airlines will help accelerate the development of sustainable and affordable jet fuels". Firm date have often proved difficult to set as there are ongoing “technical and practical” issues to resolve with suppliers and airports.

Lufthansa’s biofuel launch is a major step forward in the ongoing process of biofuel research. Other carriers spearheading the movements, such as TUI Travel, have said that the major issue preventing the commercialisation of biofuels is its cost. Biofuels can cost five to six times conventional jet fuel, according to TUI CEO Peter Long. He has called for governments to look at ways to encourage investment and build infrastructure to expand the use of biofuel. The German ministry of economy is putting up EUR2.5 million in Lufthansa’s trial as part of a research programme, known as burnFAIR, into the use of environmentally-friend fuel consumption in aviation. TUI, Lufthansa and KLM, Europe’s first users of biofuel, hope the increased interest from airlines in biofuel will encourage more companies to enter the growing market and help make it financially viable.

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