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Bio-jet fuel is definitely cleaner, but expensive for airlines in India to afford

Bio-jet fuel is definitely cleaner, but expensive for airlines in India to afford

The global aviation body IATA (International Air Transport Association) recently set out a target for one billion passengers to fly on aircraft using a mix of clean energy and fossil fuels by 2025.

The global aviation body IATA (International Air Transport Association) recently set out a target for one billion passengers to fly on aircraft using a mix of clean energy and fossil fuels by 2025. It seems stretched because, as per IATA's own admission, the current developments in bio-fuel space, both at the airlines- and airports-level, it is estimated nearly half a billion passengers will fly on blended sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by 2025. To put it into context, some 4.1 billion people flew last year globally.

From the first flight - a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 flew from London to Amsterdam - way back in 2008, there's surge in the number of airlines taking the bio-jet fuel path, including Cathay Pacific, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Qantas, and United Airlines who have made significant investments by forward-purchasing 1.5 billion gallons of SAF. Some airports such as Oslo, Stockholm, Brisbane and Los Angeles are already mixing SAF with the regular jet fuel.

In India, the efforts to shift to cleaner fuel are largely on papers, and the reasons are financial in nature. For instance, the aviation turbine fuel accounts for roughly 30-40 per cent of the total operating cost of an airline. The bio-jet fuel, which is prepared from inedible oils and fats, is 60-70 per cent more expensive than conventional jet fuel. A change in the ATF (aviation turbine fuel) mix could bump up cost of operations for airlines, and affect their bottomlines. The aviation is a cyclical business. The airlines in India are in good shape after several years of pain, thanks to low fuel prices and stupendous passenger growth over the past three years. They are more risk-averse at this point of time, say experts.

The national civil aviation policy 2016 talks about sustainable aviation while missing out on specific details on bio-jet fuel. "The ministry of civil aviation will work with DGCA, ministry of environment, forest and climate change, and industry stakeholders to develop an appropriate action plan. The ministry will strengthen policy guidelines on energy conservation and sustainable practice...," the policy says.

In 2017, some 100,000 flights were flown on bio-jet fuel across the globe, and IATA expects this number to hit one million flights by 2020. A flight completely powered by SAF has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by up to 80 per cent. The non-availability of bio-jet fuel and lack of interest from the government will perhaps make India the late adopters of the SAF.