A bunch daffodils line the front lawn at Inverness Airport.

HIAL airport group of Scotland on why SAF is bridge to long-term goals

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Green Wing logo with white letters against a green backdrop, and leafs on either sideHighlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) operates 12 Scottish airports, including some of the UK’s most remote. It recently announced the availability of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) at Inverness Airport, which serves as many as 1 million passengers annually.

The deal with World Fuel Services is significant but HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon describes it as a component in the company’s ambitious long-term sustainability plan. He sees SAF as a bridge between traditional Jet A and future technologies such as electric, hybrid-electric, and hydrogen-powered aircraft, and is candid about the challenges ahead.

“Because the technologies are still evolving, we can’t put a nice plan in motion for the next 25 years because we don’t know when things will happen and there are challenges at every stage. Our fire crews, for example, are going to have to learn how to fight fires involving hydrogen and electrical propulsion systems, while our airfields will need new infrastructure. And government needs to recognize its role as a facilitator by applying fiscal levers to encourage SAF use,” says Lyon.

“However, the challenge just now is to get emissions down in a way that’s sustainable in terms of price and availability. Three years ago, we began the process of recasting our fuel contract at Inverness, with the intention of bringing the wider hinterland of our operations in at a later point. We specified that SAF had to be available within a year or so and that has happened.”

Take-up, so far, has been limited and mostly from the general aviation community. Lyon anticipates rolling out SAF to other HIAL locations once a level of critical mass is reached at Inverness, including Sumburgh Airport on the Shetland Islands, which plays an important role in the North Sea oil and gas industry.

Inglis Lyon, managing director, Highlands and Islands Airports Limited, stands on a green field, in front of business aircraft that are parked behind him.

Inglis Lyon, managing director, Highlands and Islands Airports Limited. Image: HIAL/Malcolm McCurrach

While HIAL’s airports serve a range of traffic, many of their movements deliver lifeline services. Barra Airport, for example, has a beach runway and the island’s inhabitants rely upon the regular Twin Otter service for far more than holiday and business travel. For this reason, Lyon says continuity of fuel supply is an essential factor in HIAL’s SAF rollout, but there is more to its ambition.

“We are talking with the Scottish Government about an opportunity to take the Highlands and Islands region and use it as a template for airport sustainability,” Lyon explains. The company already has what it calls the Sustainable Aviation Test Environment (SATE) on Orkney, while a net-zero project is under way for its entire GSE fleet.

“Through SATE we’ve entered discussion with several companies, including Ampaire, who flew their hybrid aircraft around Kirkwall. Now we’re trying to get funding for a 10-year project to take Kirkwall Airport, which is wholly dependent on fossil fuel, and transition it to an airport of the future without fossil fuel.”

In some instances, HIAL’s airports are served only by smaller aircraft, primarily Twin Otters and Islanders. Both types are in the sweet spot for realistic electric, hydrogen-electric and hybrid power and here again Lyon sees a unique opportunity for HIAL to provide a near-term template for such operations. 


Surprisingly, he is cynical over carbon offset, however. “It’s something we haven’t yet fully explored, but I’m wary of adopting something that might dent the enthusiasm for the major change that’s really required. Like SAF, it’s another temporary bridge and I don’t want us coming up with a report that says we’re carbon neutral through offset and thinking the job is done.”

In the meantime, the logistics of moving SAF to the north of Scotland involve rail and road transport. Their carbon emissions, Lyon admits, “are the source of obvious criticism. They almost outweigh the savings from using SAF. But as an airport operator you must decide to what extent you are going to lead or rely on government to tell you what to do.

“We believe we need to be out in front, developing new technology, and we have to begin somewhere, define a starting point, and say: ‘here’s where we intend to be in ten years’.” 

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Featured image credited to HIAL