The first transatlantic flight by an airliner powered by pure sustainable aviation fuel (Saf) has taken off.

Virgin Atlantic is operating the flight from London’s Heathrow to New York’s JFK airport with a Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft.

Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, Transport Secretary Mark Harper and Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss are among the passengers on the flight, which is not carrying fare-paying travellers.

In a video posted on LinkedIn, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “Right now something very exciting is happening in the sky above us.”

He added: “Not only will Saf be key in decarbonising aviation, but it could create a UK industry with an annual turnover of almost £2.5 billion which could support over 5,000 UK jobs.

“It’s great that British businesses and institutions like Virgin Atlantic, Rolls-Royce, Boeing and Sheffield University continue to raise the bar in aviation.

“Now that is blue sky thinking.”

Sir Richard said: “The world will always assume something can’t be done, until you do it.

“The spirit of innovation is getting out there and trying to prove that we can do things better for everyone’s benefit.

“Virgin Atlantic has been challenging the status quo and pushing the aviation industry to never settle and do better since 1984.”

The Civil Aviation Authority reviewed various aspects of the flight before granting an operating permit, including analysing ground tests with an engine running on 100% Saf.

Virgin Atlantic was awarded up to £1 million by the Government in December last year to plan and operate the flight, named Flight100, to demonstrate the effectiveness of Saf.

Saf is seen as vital to reduce the aviation industry’s carbon emissions but is currently much more expensive to produce than conventional jet fuel.

It makes up only about 0.1% of aviation fuel used globally.

Saf is made from sustainable sources such as agricultural waste and used cooking oil, meaning its production involves using about 70% less carbon.

It can be used in jet engines to a maximum blend of 50% with kerosene without the need for any modifications.

US company Gulfstream Aerospace operated the first transatlantic flight powered by 100% Saf earlier this month using a business jet.

Virgin Atlantic’s flight will be the first of its kind by a large passenger aircraft.

Mr Weiss said: “Flight100 proves that sustainable aviation fuel can be used as a safe, drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel and it’s the only viable solution for decarbonising long haul aviation.

“It’s taken radical collaboration to get here and we’re proud to have reached this important milestone, but we need to push further.

“There’s simply not enough Saf and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment.

“This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by Government, are in place.

“Flight100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.”

Campaign group the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) has hit back at the Department for Transport’s claim the technology will “make guilt-free flying a reality”.

The group’s policy director Cait Hewitt said: “The idea that this flight somehow gets us closer to guilt-free flying is a joke.

“Saf represent around 0.1% of aviation fuel globally and will be very hard to scale up sustainably.”

She accused the aviation sector of being “misleading” over the impact of using Saf on carbon emissions.

Ms Hewitt added: “Hopefully, we’ll have better technological solutions in future but, for now, the only way to cut CO2 from aviation is to fly less.”

Under the DfT’s Saf mandate, at least 10% of fuel used by airlines in the UK must be made from sustainable feedstocks by 2030.

Without UK Saf production, meeting the mandate will rely heavily on imports.

Mr Harper recently insisted the UK is “on track” to meet its target of having at least five commercial Saf plants in construction by 2025.