​Going green: SAA flies high in its maiden tobacco-fuelled flight

An SAA jet takes off from John F Kennedy International Airport in New York, US. (Daniel Acker, Bloomberg)

An SAA jet takes off from John F Kennedy International Airport in New York, US. (Daniel Acker, Bloomberg)

The SAA stewardess was the last to climb into our shuttle. Although wrapped up in a thick navy coat, it was her colourful scarf that gave her away.

“Quite a historic moment?” the woman seated next to her asked.

“Actually, I don’t know what it’s about,” the stewardess replied.

She quickly came to learn that she, and the rest of us, would be on board the first green flight in Africa.

“Is it safe?” was her first, and only, question.

For those in the biofuel industry it’s an uninformed, but familiar question. Biofuel is already used on some commercial flights in other parts of the world. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, for example, uses biofuel daily on a flight to Norway.

Still, SAA passengers may have been just a touch nervous before the flight to know that this biofuel, blended with 70% conventional jet fuel, was not tested in flight beforehand. I was only informed of this fun fact after the flight had landed. I was, however, guaranteed that it was always sure to work.

Under the shadow of the huge Boeing 737-800 that SAA would fly from Johannesburg to Cape Town that morning, stakeholders in the biofuel project congratulated each other on reaching this milestone before refuelling the aircraft with the biofuel.

The Solaris project – named after the nicotine-free strain of tobacco plant from which the fuel is made – and the resultant flight is a collaboration between SAA, Boeing, SkyNRG, a global market leader for sustainable jet fuel, and Sunchem – an industrial research and development company and patent-holder of “Solaris Seed Tobacco”.

The plant feedstock was grown in the Marble Hall area in Limpopo, which has historically been a good tobacco-growing area.  The Solaris plant has small leaves but large flowers and seeds that are crushed to extract an olive-green, nutty scented, crude oil.

As the wheels of the SAA flight left the tarmac there is a crescendo of applause. “A bit premature,” I thought. Nervous passengers would have been pleased to know a doctor was on board to help. And while smoothly in flight some 30 000 feet above sea level, the pilot informed us that during take-off the flight consumed three litres of fuel per second, and used one litre per second while cruising.

But the mere use of biofuel no longer cuts it these days – it has to be sustainable too. This means it can’t compete with food production and mustn’t require too much water either.

After the oil is extracted from the Solaris plant, the remaining seedcake is used as a high protein animal feed supplement, and so also contributes to food security, SAA said. It is also expected to bring economic and rural development to the areas where it is produced.

Barbara Bramble, board chair at the Roundtable of Sustainable Biomaterials, said Solaris presents a possible way to make a living for hundreds of thousands of tobacco farmers who may one day need such an alternative.

Miguel Santos, Boeing International’s managing director for Africa, said estimates are that airlines globally will require 38 000 new planes between now and 2034. Commitments by the aviation industry to lower carbon emissions remain.

In an interesting choice of words, SAA’s acting chief executive Musa Zwane praised the smooth flight, noting “everything worked like a bomb”.

He said the airline aimed to use biofuel in 50% of its aircraft by 2022. However, the oil is refined overseas, as there is no capacity to do so in South Africa. This is a major hurdle in ensuring sustainable, cost-effective supply of the fuel, and so Zwane wanted the likes of Sasol, Engen and PetroSA to get on board.

As the flight touched down at Cape Town International Airport, another round of applause ensued. The doctor disembarked without having lifted a stethoscope.

 
Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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