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The fuel of the future

Mindy Kramer fills fuel containers with biodiesel at the Biofuel Oasis April 30, 2007 in Berkeley, Calif.

Kai Ryssdal: Point number one: Flying a commercial airplane in this country is just about the safest mode of transportation there is. Point number two: Until this week, no U.S. passengers had ever bought a ticket for a plane with biofuel in its gas tanks.

Then Monday, United Airlines Flight 1403 took off out of Chicago with an algae-based blend on board. Today, Alaska Airlines kicks off 11 days of flights that run, in part, on used cooking oil.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports that while it might eventually help save the planet, biofuel for jets is still crazy expensive. So why the push?


Eve Troeh: Right about now, Alaska Airlines passengers from Seattle to Washington D.C. might be ignoring the usual seatbelt speech -- to read a special hand-out instead, all about the plane's 20 percent biofuel blend.

Megan Lawrence: They'll know they're on this historic flight and it should answer most of the questions they have.

Megan Lawrence directs government and community affairs for Alaska Airlines. She says the big question is: What's the cost?

Lawrence: We paid about six times more than we would for conventional fuel.

Alaska Airlines bought about 28,000 gallons of biofuel, enough for 75 flights. The supplier is a joint venture owned by Tyson Foods -- yes, the chicken company. Robert Ames is vice president.

Robert Ames: This is among the first purchases we've really seen in North America.

He's had big orders from Europe, where airlines face government regulation on carbon pollution, and from the military, which sees biofuel as more secure energy source long-term. Ames calls Alaska Airlines' test run a big step, but it'll take much bigger industry contracts to bring down prices.

Ames: Not just sort of weeks, but also months and years. I mean really, that's what's it's going to take to grow the market.

U.S. carriers like Alaska Airlines do have one big reason to support biofuels: The wild price swings for regular jet fuel. Biofuel could one day be more predictable and less expensive than regular fuel.

And since fuel is the biggest factor in airfares, that could one day mean more predictable, less expensive ticket prices.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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