Biofuel in the Skies: Airlines Go Green

Biofuels? Most are a blend of jet fuel (we still need some petroleum) and the oils from crops such as switch grass, jatropha plants, and the current darling, algae – which reproduces quickly. No cracks about algae, please – Bill Gates, for one, has invested in it. And, algae and other biofuels -- compared to petroleum-based fuels -- can reportedly reduce emissions by as much as 70 percent to 100 percent.

Virgin Atlantic was first up for testing, then Air New Zealand, and now Continental has successfully tested a biofuel. Next up, Japan Airlines. The biofuels vary: Continental tested a mixture of algae and jatropha plants, while Virgin Atlantic used a mixture of oil from coconut and palm trees.

Whatever is ultimately deemed "best" won't be cheap initially – not with all the start-up costs -- a single production facility, for example, has an estimated price tag of between $120 million and $180 million.

Still, looking at those figures – it occurs to me that that's a drop in the bucket compared to the $700 billion bailout passed this fall. And then there's our incoming president's commitment to "green jobs" and industries – and biofuels. That is no guarantee of anything concrete in the short term, but at least we can expect an atmosphere where ideas and actions will flourish.

Still, is our nation up to the challenge of changing over to something that, to some, still seems (and sounds) so outlandish? Biofuels – it's like a whole new world and not everyone seems to want to be part of it.

On the other hand – where there's a will …

Let me use the highly imperfect example of TV. I'm talking about the switch-over from analog to digital TV programming this year. Yes, there have been some bumps along the way, but no panic, and – thanks to help from the government, the change will be made. OK, I said it was an imperfect example – but change can happen.

So I believe the switch to biofuels will occur – eventually – because it has to. Face it – do we want to be dependent on others forever?

And the rewards to passengers will be obvious: No wild oil price swings means more uniform ticket prices – without the nasty surprise of a fuel surcharge. And, once all the expensive infrastructure is in place, we may well see cheaper prices at the pump, whether a car is pulled up beside it or a Boeing 777.

So next time you see Mary Movie-Star boarding her sleek new 15-seater while touting carbon offsets – remember, your "company plane" (just insert the name of an airline here) is working on its own solution to oil emissions … and I propose we cheer them on from the sidelines.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.

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