Airports See Role In Encouraging Increase In Sustainable Aviation Fuel

aircraft being refeuled with SAF
Air France, airport operator Groupe ADP and Airbus in May cooperated on a partially SAF-powered flight from Paris to Montreal.
Credit: A. Gaulupeau/Groupe ADP

Europe’s airports see a role for themselves in encouraging the use of alternatives to kerosene, as new European legislation highlights their vital role in reducing the sector’s emissions.

On a practical level, introducing drop-in sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) made from biomass is straightforward. Although SAFs are much more expensive than standard jet fuel, they require no special investments or changes to infrastructure from airport operators. But industry players believe they still need to promote SAFs so they can take hold on a large scale.

  • Several airports invest in startups helping to boost SAF production
  • Waste-based and synthetic fuels are a key part of Fit for 55 plan

SAFs made from waste as well as synthetic e-fuels produced from electricity, hydrogen and carbon dioxide are a key component of the European Commission’s new “Fit for 55” environmental legislation package, released on July 14.

Under ReFuelEU, part of the Fit for 55 package, the commission set out a road map for increasing SAF use that will require fuel suppliers to propose sustainable alternative fuels to airline customers.

The commission described three scenarios for increased SAF use to reach its long-term climate targets. The first option puts SAF use at 4% in 2030, rising to 68% by 2050. In the second approach, SAF would reach a 5% share of total consumption by 2030 and 63% by 2050. A third possible road map calls for 8% SAF usage in 2030 and 63% in 2050. The commission also included a submandate for synthetic fuels to reach 0.7% in 2030 and 28% by 2050.

Despite all this forecasting, there is a long way to go: SAF availability in Europe is still well under 1%, but airports can help spur growth in the segment.

“Airports do have a role to play, both in encouraging and facilitating the physical introduction of SAF as well as informing the policy discussion,” says Jonathan Wood, vice president of renewable aviation at Neste. The company, which is the largest single supplier of SAF, has 100,000 tons worth of production capacity and is investing to increase its SAF capacity to 1.5 million tons by 2023.

“With landing fees, for example, airports could offer differential rates according to whether an airline is using a minimum proportion of SAF,” says Wood, who is responsible for the company’s renewable aviation business in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe. “Airports could also potentially sell ‘emission reductions’ to passengers to pay for the additional cost of SAF for a flight.”

Denise Pronk, sustainability manager at Royal Schiphol Group—which owns and operates Amsterdam Schiphol, Rotterdam The Hague and Lelystad airports—agrees that airports should advocate for SAF use.

“Airports and airlines both have a role to play,” she says. “There is a sense of urgency to building back better after the COVID-19 crisis.”

Royal Schiphol Group hopes to operate the world’s most sustainable airport. Since the beginning of this year, Neste has supplied SAF to Amsterdam Schiphol.

“Royal Schiphol Group believes that a European blending mandate can contribute to ramp up production and lower the price gap,” Pronk says. “The development, production and use of sustainable kerosene needs to be scaled up even more in order to maximize the sustainability impact.”

Looking further ahead, the aviation sector’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 “requires a combination of technologies,” Pronk says. “That means sustainable aviation fuels but also airspace management, fleet renewal and radical innovations—like electric and hybrid aircraft, for example,” she adds.

Royal Schiphol Group is taking part in consortia working on SAFs and is an investor in SkyNRG, which is building an SAF plant in the Netherlands, at Delfzijl, with the aim of significantly increasing SAF supply.

The airport group is also exploring synthetic kerosene. “Synthetic kerosene is still being developed, but tests have shown that the technology works,” Pronk says. “Much more needs to be done. The development, production and use of sustainable kerosene needs to be scaled up.”

Royal Schiphol Group has invested in startups Synkero (in Amsterdam) and Zenid (at Rotterdam The Hague Airport), which aim to further advance the development of synthetic kerosene and step up production. “We expect more production facilities to be built in the Netherlands,” Pronk says.

In 2019, Rotterdam The Hague Airport signed an agreement with multiple partners to explore synthetic jet fuel production from air. The partnership is expected to result in the construction of a facility at the airport that could produce 1,000 liters of SAF per day.

Many other airports are already getting on board with SAFs. Cologne Bonn Airport became the latest to offer Neste MY Sustainable Aviation Fuel last month, adding to its existing sustainability efforts,  including solar panels and LED technology, innovative building services, alternatively powered vehicles and equipment on the apron.

Airport operators are now exploring different ways to encourage SAF use. Norway’s Avinor has teamed up with technology company Quantafuel on a pilot plant that produces SAF from forestry residues, while Sweden’s Swedavia is offering airlines financial incentives for SAF use to help meet its target that 5% of all jet fuel used at its airports should be SAFs by 2025.

“The two main challenges for SAF are the setting up of a production supply chain and the issue of the higher cost,” says Nicolas Paulissen, head of UAF, the French airport association.

Paulissen adds that airports should help bolster the development of a supply chain. “As part of the fight against climate change, there are two main areas of focus—reducing the emissions of airport management and supporting the overall decarbonization of aviation, and preparing to welcome the decarbonized aircraft of tomorrow. We are heading toward an energy mix.”

In France, global hub operator VINCI Airports said earlier this year that it is offering a 33% SAF blend based on used cooking oil at Clermont-Ferrand airport.

Some airports are also taking a more hands-on approach to promoting alternative fuels and bringing down their costs as technologies mature.

Copenhagen Airports has teamed up with A.P. Moller—Maersk, DSV Panalpina, DFDS, SAS and Orsted—in a partnership aimed at developing a new hydrogen and e-fuel electrolyzer production facility in the Greater Copenhagen Area as early as 2023. The site could be producing e-kerosene by 2027, and when it is fully scaled-up by 2030, the project could deliver more than 250,000 tons of sustainable fuel for buses, trucks, maritime vessels and SAS aircraft every year.

“The project has the potential to displace 5% of fossil fuels at Copenhagen Airport by 2027 and 30% by 2030,” the partners said in May 2020, when they announced their plans. The project is subject to talks with authorities, and a final investment decision for the first stage is expected this year.

Helen Massy-Beresford

Based in Paris, Helen Massy-Beresford covers European and Middle Eastern airlines, the European Commission’s air transport policy and the air cargo industry for Aviation Week & Space Technology and Aviation Daily.