Branson's 'Nutty' Idea To Power His Jets

Virgin Airways 747, powered by blend of biofuels, flies to the Netherlands.

LONDON, Feb. 24, 2008— -- Virgin Flight 811P took off from London Heathrow this morning fueled, in part, by 150,000 coconuts and babassu nuts picked in the Amazon rainforest. The Boeing 747 touched down safely 40 minutes later in Amsterdam.

This was either a milestone in aviation history on a par with Lindbergh's first solo crossing of the Atlantic, or it was a cynical public relations stunt. It depends on how you look at it.

"This is the first stage on a journey towards renewable fuel," Virgin's founder Richard Branson told hundreds of journalists gathered to watch the take-off. "It's the equivalent of those exciting first few steps by a baby."

See more about the Virgin flight tonight on "World News." Check your local listings for air time.

There was a carnival atmosphere: Free bagels and back rubs in the Virgin hangar at Heathrow for the press. Branson, ever the showman, posed with a coconut. But environmentalists were not impressed. "This is a greenwash," Leo Murray of the pressure group Plane Stupid told us. "It is designed to send a message out to the public that it's OK to continue flying because a 'technofix' is just around the corner."

What does today's flight prove? Only that biofuel can work at 25,000 feet -- it won't freeze at 30 degrees below zero. But as Branson said, this is a baby step. Only one of the 747's four engines was powered by a biofuel blend – 20 percent biofuel and 80 percent conventional aviation fuel.

There are some bigger steps that must be taken before biofuel is used for vacations. First up, a sustainable and viable source of biofuel must be found.

Corn, palm oil or coconuts are not the answer: Rainforest is cleared for their production or they compete with traditional agriculture and take up land that is needed to grow food.

Fuel from algae might be the answer. But most experts think that technology is a long way off. Decades, perhaps. Branson thinks Virgin aircraft could be flying on algae in the next five to 10 years. Optimistic? I asked him. "Well, as you know, I'm an optimistic person."

Branson has pledged $3 billion -- all the profits for a decade from his airline and train company -- for research into greener fuel. The aviation industry burns around 87 billion gallons of fuel every year. Branson, and others, realize something needs to be done. Today's experimental biofuel was made by a Seattle-based outfit, Imperium Renewables. Boeing and General Electric, which makes the engines, are also involved.

Boeing's new generation jets -- the 787 Dreamliner and the updated 747 -- are far more fuel efficient than their predecessors.

Airbus, Boeing's European competitor, tested a synthetic jet fuel earlier this month.

But environmental groups like Friends of the Earth would rather airlines just stopped flying so much. "Biofuel is not the answer," a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth told ABC.

"People like Friends of the Earth just annoy me," Branson told me today. "All they do is criticize anyone that tries anything new. What they should be trying to do is encourage technological breakthroughs so that the world has a future."

It's a future that will have a lot more planes in it. The world's fleet is projected to double in size in the next 20 years. Will biofuel be the answer? Will environmentalists get their wish and will our flights be rationed? It might take years before we really know if today was a milestone or a stunt.