Despite the challenges faced in scaling up feedstock and fuel production, commercial aviation could yet achieve the goal of meeting 1% of its jet-fuel needs from sustainable biofuels by 2015, says a senior Boeing executive.

“It’s going to be really close,” says Billy Glover, vice president of market strategy for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, adding that “1% by 2015” was set by Boeing as in “internal, aspirational” target at a time when many thought finding biofuel alternatives to petroleum-based jet fuel was impossible.

Speaking after United Airlines signed its first, small biofuel offtake agreement and announced plans to release the first formal request for proposals (RFP) for larger quantities of biofuels, Glover says “there are other things in the works, but it’s not a sure thing.”

“We selected 1% as an inflection point, significant enough to be able say we are really going to get enough volume to get the economies of scale and to get an idea where the economics of biofuels are going,” he says.

Describing United’s purchase agreement with AltAir Fuels for 15 million gal. of biofuel over three years for use at Los Angeles International Airport as “a historic milestone,” Glover says the airline’s planned RFP for 30-40 million gal./year of biofuel at one of its hubs “is a strong indication we are right at the front end of achieving some industrial scale.”

The United RFP “is the next step to understanding the availability, pricing and competitiveness of biofuels,” he says. “We are right at the inflection point today.”

Issuing a formal RFP emerged as a key action from a year-long study by the Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative (Masbi), led by a consortium of United, Boeing, Honeywell company UOP, the Chicago Department of Aviation and the Clean Energy Trust.

Boeing has been involved in several such regional initiatives, including the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest report completed in 2011, and Glover says the Masbi report shows aviation’s understanding of the biofuels industry and policy issues has matured.

“There is a maturity that was not there a couple of years ago,” he says, citing as an example the report’s recommendation that master limited partnerships—an investment structure and tax regime now limited to the conventional petroleum industry—be allowed for renewable fuels.

“We have done regional studies in Australia, Mexico, and one in Brazil we have just completed, and in each case we learn something more,” Glover says. “Each one increases the momentum towards the longer-term goal” of reducing aviation’s carbon footprint and dependence on fossil fuel.