Airline claims first with flight by natural gas

14.10.2009   (Financial Times)

By Pilita Clark in London

Qatar Airways on Monday said it had put paying passengers on a flight powered
by fuel made from natural gas for the first time, in what could be an important
step in the industry’s attempts to lower dependence on oil-based fuel.

The airline contacted passengers booked for the six-hour flight from London’s
Gatwick airport to Doha beforehand and offered them a free alternative flight
in case nerves outweighed a desire to be part of history.

Gary Woodward, general manager operations and technical supply at Shell, which developed the 50-50 blend of synthetic gas-to-liquids (GTL) kerosene and conventional oil-based
kerosene used on the flight
, said the fuel offered airlines the chance to become less reliant on oil-based

Although the GTL fuel also has lower emissions of pollutants affecting local
air quality, neither Shell nor other members of the consortium developing it claim
it is better at reducing carbon emissions, saying only that "there may be some
modest CO2 emissions benefits".  Jeff Gazzard , board member of the Aviation Environment Federation group, said: "GTL is useful for local airport air quality but has a higher carbon
footprint than ordinary fuel."

Aviation has become a target of environmentalists who accuse it of dragging its
heels on climate change.   The industry unveiled an agreement last month to cut
emissions to 50 per cent below 2005 levels by 2050.

A number of manufacturers and airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, Continental Airlines and Air New Zealand, have been testing alternative fuels based on substances ranging from coconut
oil to algae.   At least five test flights using either biofuels or GTL have been
carried out over the past two years, including a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400
trip in February last year on which one engine operated on a 20 per cent biofuel
mix of babassu oil and coconut oil.

Airbus flew an A380 last year with one engine powered by GTL fuel.

However, Qatar Airways claims to be the first airline to use GTL kerosene on
an ordinary scheduled flight with paying passengers.

Commercial airlines in South Africa have used coal-to-liquid kerosene, but Monday’s
flight was the first using natural gas-to-liquid, which is considered more environmentally

A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK said GTL had been used
on military flights but the Qatar flight was the first time the authority had
heard of it being used on a commercial flight with passengers.

Mr Woodward of Shell said the new GTL fuel was only the third to be approved
for aircraft since the 1930s because of the need to ensure passenger safety.