Aviation biofuel is a milestone for airline industry as Air NZ and Virgin Australia start search for local product.

United Airlines has become the first United States carrier to begin using commercial-scale volumes of sustainable aviation biofuel for regularly scheduled flights.

The airline has begun using biofuel made from non-edible, natural oils and agricultural wastes.

Last week, United began integrating sustainable aviation biofuels into its ongoing operations at its Los Angeles airport hub, starting with flights to San Francisco.

United, which will resume long-haul services to Auckland in July, says the launch marks a significant milestone in the commercial aviation industry by moving beyond demonstration flights and test programmes to the use of advanced biofuels for its ongoing operations.

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United's moves come as Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia start a search for locally produced aviation biofuel.

United will operate flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco with the dedicated use of AltAir Paramount renewable fuel for two weeks, while also integrating this fuel into its regular operations at the airport. United has agreed to purchase up to 58 million litres of sustainable biofuel from AltAir Paramount over a three-year period.

The airline has begun using the biofuel in its daily operations at Los Angeles, storing and delivering it in the same way as traditional fuel.

"Today's historic launch of regularly scheduled service utilising advanced biofuels represents a major next step in our ongoing commitment to operate sustainably and responsibly," said Angela Foster-Rice, United's managing director of environmental affairs and sustainability.

The Air Transport Action Group calculates that planes are responsible for 2 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions and within the transport sector 12 per cent of emissions.

United has collaborated with AltAir since 2009 with a common goal of bringing an ongoing source of sustainable aviation biofuels to an airport. A refinery converts sustainably sourced non-edible, natural oils and agricultural wastes into jet fuel and is expected to provide a greater than 60 per cent reduction in lifecycle carbon emissions when compared to fuel produced from traditional petroleum. The hunt for commercially viable biofuel gained momentum late last decade but airlines have struggled to find a product that could be produced in sufficient quantities and be compatible with traditional fuel infrastructure.

By working in partnership with our alliance partner Virgin Australia we hope we can stimulate the local market, drive innovation and investment and potentially uncover a sustainable biofuel supply.

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Captain David Morgan. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Captain David Morgan. Photo / Brett Phibbs

United Airlines has been at the forefront of alternative fuel development in the United States.

In 2009, it became the first US carrier to perform a biofuel demonstration flight and in 2011, it was the first US carrier to operate a commercial advanced biofuel flight.

Last year, United announced a US$30 million equity investment in US-based alternative fuels developer Fulcrum BioEnergy.

Air New Zealand and Virgin have announced their search for a supply which Air NZ chief flight operations and safety officer Captain David Morgan said was a key initiative under its carbon management programme.

" ... we hope we can stimulate the local market, drive innovation and investment and potentially uncover a sustainable biofuel supply suitable for our respective operations," Morgan said.

Virgin Australia head of sustainability Robert Wood said the airline was committed to stimulating the development of a sustainable aviation biofuel industry in this region.

"Aviation biofuel offers a significant opportunity for the aviation industry to reduce emissions while also building long-term fuel security for the sector," Wood said. "We are seeing the development of the aviation biofuel industry accelerate internationally but that is not yet the case for our region. We are confident that our collaboration with Air New Zealand to procure a large volume of aviation biofuel will de-risk investment in the sector, creating high-tech, high-skilled jobs in the region."

AltAir Paramount

• A biofuel made from non-edible, natural oils and agricultural wastes.

• United Airlines is integrating biofuel into operations.

• Carrier has agreed to purchase up to 58 million litres over a three-year period.