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Fly The Friendly...Fries?

Last week, United Airlines launched a new initiative of using biofuels in its planes flying between Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO). It marks the first time ever that a US airline is using a renewable fuel for commercial flights, and if it’s successful, United says they will use the fuel on all flights operating out of LAX.

The fuel is made using a proprietary technology developed by Honeywell UOP, and refined by LA-based AltAir. The refinery makes the fuel using everything from used french fry oil to algae.

This no doubt will be a boon to fast-food franchises and swimming pool cleaners everywhere. But in my mind, it brings up a larger question. Given the smell of fresh French Fries as these planes taxi and take off, will United start offering fast-food fare on those flights? Eh. Wishful thinking.

So while there may not be an upside to this new initiative from a passenger/money or passenger/hunger standpoint, there is most definitely an upside for the environment.

By using the 30/70 mix of biofuel and jet fuel on their flights (although the mix can safely be used on a 50/50 basis), United is reducing greenhouse gas emissions of those flights by up to 80 percent, compared to jet fuel-only flights. And there is a further upside which hasn’t yet been announced. The same company (AltAir) also makes diesel fuel from the same technology which can power virtually all of the mechanical equipment while the planes are on the ground. Everything from generators which provide air conditioning on the plane to the tow trucks which push the planes away from the gate.

And unlike the oil market, which is forming its own kind of algae right now due to stagnation, these biofuels don’t have to worry about rig counts, Brent Crude prices, or who is running for President. Jeez, there’s probably enough algae in the bird bath outside my house to fly from here to London and back. And the local McDonald’s feeds enough fries to local residents to keep any airline in business (remember, I live in Deep East Texas where frying everything is a way of life).

While I have been deeply entrenched in the oil industry my entire career, I’m actually happy to see a development like this. If it can get rid of excess algae and stop fast-food joints from dumping their waste grease, I’m all for it. And the environment benefits too. It’s a win-win for everybody.

Once United made their plans public, other airlines also jumped on the French Fry/Algae bandwagon. Southwest Airlines and FedEx are reported to start buying renewable fuel in September. And once others see the positive monetary/environmental consequences, the air will be filled with the aroma of french fry oil.

Now, if someone could just figure a way to make jet fuel out of Washington’s hot air, we’d be rid of pollution forever.

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