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Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines says it, like the rest of the aviation industry, has done everything it can to improve fuel efficiency but that can only do so much. The Seattle-based airline says a concerted effort to develop sustainable aviation biofuels is critical. Two new reports find that if policy makers take action, locally-grown sustainable biofuels can become a viable industry to power air travel.

New studies show flight path for aviation biofuels (Video)

For years, Bill Glover, Boeing's environmental guru, has flown around the world trying to sow the seeds for sustainable aviation biofuels.

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Washington State University

Steve Camp, a farmer in Washington state, harvests acres of camelina seeds that he processes into biofuels. "This can be done, this really can be done. I'm very encouraged. I think it's a very viable project," says Camp.

Now, Glover, who's based in Seattle, says he's convinced one solution is right in his backyard.

"It's our belief that local and regional efforts are going to be the way this gets going," said Glover as he helped unveiled the results of a 10-month study into the feasibility of an aviation biofuels industry in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States.

"There's absolutely capacity. There's a great deal of potential in this region of the world," Glover said.

"We've done a lot to improve efficiency. But efficiency can only go so far and we need to look at this alternative source of jet fuel to continue that progress." Bill Ayer, Alaska Airlines Chairman and CEO

Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest - a group that includes Boeing, Alaska Airlines, Washington State University, and the region's three largest airports - looked at all aspects of implementing a supply chain for aviation biofuels and found potential with a portfolio of feed stocks: oil seeds like camelina; algae; forest residue; and solid waste.

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Alaska Airlines

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines flies one of the youngest airplane fleets in the United States and has invested millions in advanced navigation equipment to improve fuel efficiency. But the airline's chief executive says jet fuel remains the number one cost.

"Fuel is now our number one cost," says Bill Ayer, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Alaska Airlines. "We've done a lot to improve efficiency. But efficiency can only go so far and we need to look at this alternative source of jet fuel to continue that progress."

CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, conducted a similar study and found that Australia and New Zealand also show promise for hosting an industry that harnesses non-food biomass sources.

CSIR's report predicts that over the next 20 years a sustainable aviation fuels industry could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent, generate more than 12,000 jobs and reduce Australia's reliance on aviation fuel imports by $2 billion annually.

"It's our belief that local and regional efforts are going to be the way this gets going because feed stocks vary from place to place, because processing capability varies, because public policy varies." Bill Glover, Boeing Vice President of environment and aviation policy integration

The study was commissioned by and developed in collaboration with members of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group- including Air New Zealand, Boeing, Qantas and Virgin Australia.

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Boeing

Results from several biofuels test flights have shown that bio-derived fuels perform better than petroleum-based jet fuel. The challenge is figuring out how to move beyond making a few batches at a time, which is expensive, and ramping up to full-scale production.

Glover, Boeing's vice president of environment and aviation policy integration, says numerous test flights have already shown biofuels perform better than traditional jet fuel. Now, the challenge is figuring out how to ramp up production.

Glover says local is the way to go "because feed stocks vary from place to place, because processing capability varies, because public policy varies."

Industry leaders say it's on the public policy front where they need the most help to establish a flight path for a sustainable industry.

"We need some new early policy support to get this moving, to encourage the investment that's going to be required to build the infrastructure so we have an alternative fuel available at a competitive price," Ayer said.

"To make sustainable aviation biofuels economically viable, we need some financing help in the form of loan guarantees and such to get some initial capability at scale in place. We need some long-term off take agreements so that we establish there is a place to sell this into. We need some scale-up of feed stocks and some research and development associated with those to improve the productivity," said Glover.