March 8, 2012
Chilean airline company LAN hit a landmark on Wednesday, flying its first-ever commercial flight using biofuel. An Airbus 320 flew 170 passengers from the capital of Santiago to the southern city of Concepción, powered by a biofuel made from refined vegetable oil.
Ignacio Cueto, general manager of LAN, said the flight “represented a key step toward the future of the industry,” and that there is “high potential” for biofuel production in South America. As LAN expands its operations in Latin America—with the acquisition of Colombia’s Aires and the recent merger with Brazil’s TAM airlines—the company is looking to develop alternate and cleaner sources of fuel. This is consistent with the direction in which the global airline industry is headed; the International Air Transport Association has committed to increasing its use of renewable fuels to 1 percent by 2015 and 5 percent by 2020. At the same time, Cueto and others emphasize that “the strictest technical standards” will continue to be upheld, and that investment to expand the use of biofuels will not be prohibitively high.
Cueto did not specify the cost of a ticket for Wednesday’s Santiago–Concepción flight, saying only that the costs of biofuel-powered flights are not yet competitive. Yet he also affirmed LAN’s future willingness to use biofuel in all its flights, and to work with any supplier that can offer competitive costs. Wednesday’s flight was accomplished as a part of a joint initiative with biofuel and forestry conglomerate Copec, with biofuel imported from the United States. Yet Copec general manager Lorenzo Guzmari expressed confidence that Chile could develop its own renewable fuels.
Biofuels are commonly made from plants with high levels of sugar and some oils. The ones used for LAN’s flight can be made from plants such as algaes, jatropha and halophytes and organic wastes, which can then be processed into high-quality fuels. In its press release LAN clarified that none of the fuels used were destined for consumption as food. The release also noted that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted during combusion of these biofuels is about the same as the amount taken up by plants during their growth cycle, which means that it results in no net addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.