Continental became the first domestic airline to test alternative fuels when it completed a successful two-hour flight over Houston using biofuel. One of the Boeing 737's two engines was powered by a mix of 50% kerosene and a blend of fuels derived from algae and other organic materials. Billy Glover, managing director of environmental strategy for Boeing, told the Los Angeles Times that Continental's test flight represented a "major step forward" and suggested biofuels could be in regular use in three years.
According to the Times, Continental's flight was a bit more risky than previous tests conducted by international carriers such as Air New Zealand, because Continental used a two-engine plane instead of an aircraft with four engines. But Continental successfully completed numerous tests, such as turning the biofuel-powered engine on and off and abruptly accelerating and decelerating. The pilot also observed that the biofuel appeared to be more efficient.
The search for alternative fuel sources gained steam last year as oil prices skyrocketed, but the Times reports interest in alternatives has remained even as fuel prices have plummeted. Certainly the environmental benefit of biofuels is a major factor, especially considering air travel is a major source of greenhouse gases. Airline executives warned, however, that it may take 10 years before supply and production levels are sufficient enough to power the industry.
I'm pretty excited that airlines seem motivated to pursue alternative fuels, regardless of whether that motivation is of the environmental or economic sort. OK, OK, it's probably for financial reasons, as airlines try to insulate themselves from another fuel crisis. But if the carriers are really thinking largely with their wallets, perhaps our incoming president can dangle some incentives in front of their noses to keep them moving in this direction.
After all, now is the time to be thinking seriously about alternative sources of energy. And while it's encouraging to see the airline industry—which is an enormous consumer of fossil fuels—testing something as bizarre-sounding as algae-based fuels, experimentation is only the beginning. I won't be truly impressed until I see some follow-through, such as a San Francisco-to-Boston flight running on a biofuel mix. But if that day comes, yeah, I'll stand up and clap.