Selling sustainability in business aviation

With a full recovery from COVID still two to three years away for airlines, business aviation is taking the lead in driving sustainability for the whole sector.

At the start of the pandemic, the production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) on a commercial scale was only just getting off the ground. With passenger airlines struggling to survive, fuel suppliers redirected their limited stocks of SAF to business aviation, which recovered faster, and cargo operators, who were busier than ever thanks to the online shopping boom.

As demand for air travel begins to ramp up again, governments and industry are striving to scale up SAF production from a few million gallons to the several billion that will be needed to meet sustainability needs across the sector. But business aviation and its customers continue to play a key role by sending an early and strong demand signal to start the global scale-up of SAF.

While aircraft are becoming more efficient, replacing whole fleets with newer models will take decades. Developing true zero-emission electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft will also take years,as will cutting carbon by creating efficiencies in air traffic management. The only fast, large-scale solution is SAF, but in order for that to work, production needs to rise sharply and costs need to fall – at the same time.

That calls for demand, which means the business aviation sector could make or break the process.

Most companies that use business air travel have their own carbon-cutting goals and are under growing pressure from stakeholders to fulfil them. That means that in business aviation, sustainability sells.

But right now, selling SAF is a challenge, not only because of the small production volumes, but also because supply points are few and far between, leading to a paradox where actually delivering SAF becomes costly in both money and carbon.

The short-term fix is a book-and-claim system that allows customers to use SAF as a form of carbon offsetting, by paying for it without physically receiving it. The fuel can then be used by someone else closer to where it was produced. But to work, this kind of system needs to be credible and traceable, with no double counting.

The end goal is to make SAF more accessible to those business customers who are willing and able to pay big bucks for it, and help to scale up production volumes and bring down costs for the whole industry.