I recently listened to an On Point radio spot hosted by Tom Ashbrook entitled “The End of Affordable Air Travel.” Ashbrook and his guests speculated whether air transportation would be accessible for typical Americans in the wake of ballooning fossil fuel prices. The prominent conclusion was that air travel will someday be out of reach to the middle class, and commercial aviation will cease to exist.
With the summer fuel spike behind us, short term concerns about the price of air travel seem to have dissipated (at least until next summer). However, the long term question remains: will commercial aviation cease once costly petroleum-based jet fuel pushes air travel beyond economic reach of Joe America?
While renewable options beyond personal automobiles are already available for land-based transportation (i.e., hydrogen busses, electric trains, and bicycles), commercial jet air travel is particularly dependent on fossil fuels. A few brave souls have ventured into the electric airplane business spanning a range from the pragmatic ElectraFlyer to the downright loony liquid hydrogen-powered superconducting aircraft suggested by Harry Valentine in his article, “Supersonic Electric Aircraft.” For some exercise, one can pedal across the sky using human muscle power. However, no practical technology currently available matches the energy density and thrust potential derived from combustion required to keep a 747 aloft.
To keep the commercial airline industry alive in a world with no oil, an alternative to jet fuel is needed. It should come as no surprise that Virgin Atlantic, headed by Richard Branson of Spaceship One fame, is already exploring one possible jet fuel alternative. Virgin recently conducted a 747 test flight from London to Amsterdam during which one of the plane’s four engines ran completely on renewable biofuel derived from coconut and babassu oils. This feat was reported in Time magazine under the headline, “Can Airplanes Fly on Biofuel?“
Richard Branson, it seems, is a transportation and energy visionary who can do no wrong. While the alternative energy business is full executives who talk big and produce little, Branson is unique in his ability to always deliver what he promises. Critics of the Virgin 747 biofuel flight point out that three of the four aircraft engines ran on conventional jet fuel. What these critics are missing is that Branson and Virgin Atlantic understand that transportation and energy engineering are underpinned by a continuous process of incremental improvements. Apollo couldn’t put people on the moon without Mercury and Gemini to test procedures and equipment beforehand. Spaceship One was not itself a space tourism venture, but it proved private spaceflight could be a viable, safe proposition.
The Virgin biofuel 747 flight a logical step toward affordable green commercial air travel in a future era when fossil fuels are prohibitively expensive. At least someone out there is thinking ahead.