Southwest

Southwest promises a smooth ride (Jeff Haynes/Reuters)

Fuel prices continue to rise, but Southwest doesn't seem to mind.

The United States airline giant, which services over 88 million fliers a year, was one of the first airlines to sign a letter of intent to negotiate the purchase of fuel derived from biomass. Along with seven other Air Transport Association airlines (American Airlines, United Continental, Alaska Airlines, FedEx, JetBlue Airways and US Airways) Southwest  has negotiated with Solena Fuels for a supply of 100% biomass-derived jet fuel to be produced in northern California.

Southwest is a member of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI), a group that supports the development and use of commercially viable, environmentally-friendly alternative aviation fuels.

To produce the fuel, Solena Fuels will utilize biomass- post-recycled urban and agricultural wastes. By using this biomass, thousands of tons of waste will be saved from landfills; the earth thanks you.

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A sample of biodiesel made from algae (Enrique Marcarian / Reuters)

Biofuel is a fuel produced from plant matter- organic waste and non-food material- instead of petroleum or other fossil fuels.

The fuel will be produced at Solena's GreenSky California biomass-to-liquids (BtL) facility, located in northern California. This is the first approved commercially viable fuel and production facility. The plant hopes that by 2015, they will be converting 550,000 tons of urban and agricultural waste into 16 million gallons a year of jet fuel. The jet fuel will have lower emissions of greenhouse gases and local pollutants than petroleum-based fuels.

Why should we use it? Consider this: jet fuel currently costs $131 per barrel. Biofuel could ultimately cost less than $50 a barrel. When the US spends $139 billion per year on aviation fuel, they're getting the money from your hiked up ticket prices.

This is the first step towards realistic renewable fuel and sustainable air travel. The dream began years ago and the first prototype was introduced in February 2008. A Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 was the first commercial jet to fly on biofuel, but the eco-plane ran only one engine on the experimental fuel; the other three burned standard jet fuel. In addition, the biofuel was blended with conventional jet fuel 80/20 in favor of the regular stuff. In total, then, just 5% of the 49,000-lb (22,000 kg) fuel load consisted of a mix of coconut oil and babassu oil. Still, it was a start.

Then in July 2010, at the International Aerospace Exhibition in Germany, the first plane to run on nothing but algae-based biofuels took to the sky. However, the experiment did not use a commercial passenger plane, just a prototype for a much smaller plane.

This year, it seems, they've finally gotten it right. While commercial planes won't be zipping around on biofuels tomorrow (though experts hope to implement biofuel within the next six months), the announcement emphasizes the ongoing steps that ATA member airlines are taking to encourage alternative jet fuel production. They hope to contribute to the creation of green jobs and promote energy security through economically viable alternatives that also demonstrate global and local environmental benefits, says Nicholas Calio, the president and CEO of ATA.

Along with promoting a greener plane ride, to celebrate its 40th Anniversary, Southwest Airlines is teaming up with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) for the Conservation In Action Tour: 40 Projects for 40 Years. Southwest is taking its commitment to conservation to the streets. The tour, which kicked of June 17th In Dallas, Texas, will cross the country in a custom-designed Southwest Airlines biodiesel RV.  During the summer-long tour, the RV will stop in 25 cities to promote conservation projects across the country in urban areas, parks, reserves, and neighborhoods.

Southwest's

Southwest's Eco-friendly RV. (Blogsouthwest.com)

The Student Conservation Association (SCA) is a non-profit national organization that provides high school and college students with conservation service opportunities in all 50 states, from urban communities to national parks and forests. You can follow the tour on Facebook and Twitter, and you can also visit their Website, which features stories and videos from the road and an interactive map where users can find out about joining Southwest employees and SCA volunteers at stops nearby.

In more good news, in addition to being fuel friendly, Southwest Airlines has once again topped rivals in customer service and overall flight satisfaction. According to Consumer Reports' June issue, Southwest is the best airline in terms of comfort and the experience of flying. It surveyed 15,000 of its readers and found that in terms of overall experience, travelers preferred Southwest, Jet Blue, Alaska and Frontier airlines, giving them high marks for check-in ease, cabin crew service and baggage handling.