SAA, Mango operate Africa’s first green flights

SAA, Mango operate Africa’s first green flights

South African Airways (SAA) and its low-cost subsidiary Mango made history last week when they operated the first ever flights on the African continent utilizing sustainable biofuel made from tobacco plants grown in the Marble Hall region in Limpopo.

The Boeing 737-800 planes flew between OR Tambo airport near Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Sunchem SA is an industrial research and developing company holding the patent for the Solaris tobacco plant – from which vegetable crude oil is extracted to be used as aviation fuel. Its CEO, Hayo de Feijter, said the agricultural project to grow the tobacco started two and a half years ago in Marble Hall.
The plant’s seeds were crushed to extract the oil, which was then exported to the US, where it was refined. A 5.1-ton container of fuel for the two flights was then exported to South Africa.
A mixture of 30% biofuel and 70% conventional fossil fuel was used for the flights. The fuel for the flights was supplied by global market leader for sustainable jet fuel SkyNRG and produced by AltAir Fuels.
No modifications to the aircraft or engines are required to be able to use the biofuel and the aircraft is simply fuelled with the certified blend.
At a media briefing held in Cape Town, the panel representing SAA and its partners – including Sunchem, Boeing, SkyNRG – would not give any numbers as to the cost of the project and its ambitious future plans. Maarten van Dijk, CEO of SkyNRG said in the US the cost of aviation biofuel is comparable with conventional fossil-based aviation fuel.
He said the cost of the fuel for the two flights was higher, since its was produced specifically for the event and included the cost of marketing and other event-related items.
Ian Cruickshank, environmental specialist at SAA, said the airline shared some of the cost with its partners. He added that no commitment has been made for further investments.
The panel made it clear that the cost would become competitive with conventional aviation fuel once the country has its own supply chain, including a refinery. The idea is to grow the biofuel portion of SAA’s fuel usage to a point where economies of scale will render it competitive.
Italy and the Netherlands were held as examples of smaller countries with their own biofuel refineries that produce at comparable cost to conventional fuel but again no numbers were given.
SAA said in a statement: “The long-term ambitious goal of the programme is to operate all flights out of SAA’s hub at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on sustainable biofuels.”
“The project has brought economic and rural development to the Limpopo province in keeping with SAA’s mandate to support the South African National Developmental Plan. It establishes a new regional bio jet fuel supply chain of which we can rightfully be proud. SAA as a leading African and global airline is a trailblazer when it comes to environmental and social sustainability in Africa,” says Musa Zwane, SAA’s Acting CEO.
According to the SAA statement, the Solaris crop achieved certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), one of the strongest sustainability standards in the world. The RSB standard is considered the ‘gold standard’ of environmental sustainability for biomaterials and incorporates stringent environmental and social requirements that ensure the biomaterials are environmentally friendly and certified to reduce emissions, while the growing of the plants is done in a socially-responsible and caring way to ensure that local communities benefit and the crop does not threaten food security.
Asked whether SAA should take the lead in such an ambitious start-up, in light of that fact that it is technically insolvent and has failed to publish its financial statements since 2014/15, Cruickshank said the project could have a huge positive impact on the economy of South Africa.
He said it would be “more irresponsible if we didn’t do it”, and rather than sit and do nothing, SAA should run with the project. SAA “shouldn’t be too prudent,” he said.


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