United dragged by Twitter over greenwashing with its ‘100% sustainable fuel' flight

Twitter, Follow @shift_tnw

Wednesday was a “historic” day for aviation, United Airlines .

Boeing 737 MAX 8 flew from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and headed to Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, marking the “world’s first passenger flight using 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).”

Today, United will be the first in aviation history to fly a passenger flight using 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

This flight will serve as a turning point in the industry’s effort to combat climate change.

— United Airlines (@united)

At first glance, the statement seems very impressive, but a closer look reveals that it might be an exaggeration.And yes, the Twitterverse has something to say about United’s greenwashing technique.

We’ll turn to Twitter’s snarky comments soon, but first things first: What’s this sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) United is boasting about?

SAF is a clean substitute for fossil jet fuels. Rather than being refined from petroleum, SAF is produced from sustainable feedstock such as cooking oil, solid waste from homes, and even food scraps.

This 2-minute explainer video from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) lays out everything you need to know much better than I ever could:


So SAF is indeed a sustainable alternative and has the potential to cut down 80% of CO2 emissions produced by conventional jet fuel.

Then why Twitter is attacking United Airlines for greenwashing?

1. The plane didn’t actually use 100% SAF

And it’s clear enough if you read the , as some of Twitter’s users did.

In fact, one engine was running with 100% SAF and the other with traditional jet fuel.

That’s because the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows for a 50% total of SAT to be used during a flight, United explains.

For this reason, SAF is basically employed by airlines as a drop-in fuel that gets blended with the conventional one at a 50-50 ratio. United decided to fly its plane with one SAT-powered engine and one fossil fuel-powered to demonstrate that “there are no operational differences between the two.”

Fifty percent SAF is what the FAA currently allows. Previously, we used a blended SAF/traditional jet fuel mix. This flight is historic because it proves that there is no operational difference when an engine runs on 100% SAF (versus that blend). The goal is to scale that!

— United Airlines (@united)

That’s definitely an admirable experiment, but Twitter folks are right to call United’s statement misleading, even if they’re not in the aviation industry.

Yes and that’s awesome but your original tweet uses misleading wording. The marketing team beat out the factual team.

— 🇨🇦Paul Beaudry🇨🇦 (@paul_beaudry)

So basically you are lying when you say 100% sustainable?

— $peer ⓥ🌱 (@Ruttemuf)

2. SAF is sustainable but not 100%

Naturally, many Twitter users asked not only how SAF is made, but also how sustainable it really is. One wondered, “What is sustainable fuel for planes? Curious…”

It’s organic material that has been refined into fuel. Some examples of this include garbage (like, straight off the truck into the refinery!), managed forest waste and agricultural waste! SAF refined from agricultural waste is what is being used on this flight!

— United Airlines (@united)

Indeed, SAF focuses on this type of feedstock to make its lifecycle as green as possible. However according to , “there are emissions produced during the production of SAF, from the equipment needed to grow the crop, transport the raw goods, refine the fuel and so on.”

But when Twitter user Michael Polanyi, Policy and Campaign Manager at , asked about the greenhouse emissions involved in the production of SAFs, United offered no reply.

What % GHG emission reductions are achieved by substituting SAF for conventional jet fuel? I assume there are GHG emissions involved in the production of SAFs.

— Michael Polanyi (@MichaelPolanyi)

3. SAF isn’t easily scalable

Actually, that’s the comment I would have posted on Twitter.

United’s flight is meant to demonstrate the “scalable uses of SAF by all airlines in the future”, but that’s easier said than done.

According to , current volumes of SAF represent less than 1% of the total jet fuel demand. And scaling up the volume is actually a very big challenge.

by the International Council on Transportation (ICCT) has focused on the EU to estimate SAF feedstock availability to meet the growing aviation demand. 

Here are two alarming conclusions:

Taking into account sustainable availability and an optimistic assumption for the deployment rate of novel conversion technologies, we estimate that there is a resource base to meet approximately 5.5% of the European Union’s projected 2030 jet fuel demand using advanced SAFs.

Even with strong policies in place, the limited availability of the best-performing feedstocks suggests that SAF production alone cannot achieve the EU aviation sector’s long-term GHG reduction obligations. 

And that’s for the EU alone. I don’t even want to imagine the numbers if the same study was applied to the US.

Besides the production challenges, there’s one more important factor to consider: the elevated cost of SAF. According to , SAF prices are about five times higher than prices for conventional jet fuel. 

So what does that mean for us, the customers? That’s right: higher prices.

I suppose your intention is to charge the extra cost to your customers on ticket prices? Or will it be subsidies, meaning extra taxes to pay for the people? Or both?

— Nicolas de Cuse (@NickdeCusa)

Either way, I’m actually in favor of SAF and support any green initiative aiming to help us tackle climate change. But the truth is that alternatives such as SAF are like using a bandage for a wound that requires stitches.

I believe the following tweet perfectly summarizes the situation and gives us some food for though. I don’t know who Timlagor is but they make an interesting point:

Read the fine print.

If you’re a loyal customer then you’re a big part of hte problem. Aviation isn’t sustainable and won’t be sustainable any time soon.

— Timlagor (@Timlagor)

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