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An initiative by Etihad Airways that offers a glimpse into a more sustainable future for air travel

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) — While some delegates at the COP27 climate summit were criticized for arriving on private jets last week, others arrived in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, on flights described as emissions-free, as they were subsidized. Completely powered by sustainable aviation fuel.

The flights were part of a program called Greenliner run by Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, as a test drive for sustainable air travel solutions.

Commercial aviation accounted for just over 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2021, which indicates that it may be a modest contributor to climate change.

But the number doesn’t tell the whole story, because air travel affects the climate in more complex ways than just carbon emissions, and its impact is expected to rise in the future, as more people want to fly.

An initiative by Etihad Airways that offers a glimpse into a more sustainable future for air travel
Etihad Airways’ Sustainable50, plain_textCredit: Etihad

While renewable energy and electric vehicles provide clear paths to decarbonize sectors such as energy and road transport, it is not so clear-cut for the aviation sector.

As a result, the sector is off track to meet its goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, relies on two-thirds of this upcoming transition from sustainable aviation fuel, made from waste products, and could reduce emissions by 80% on average, but currently accounts for only Only 1% of global jet fuel use.

This is why sustainable aviation fuel is a key component of the Greenliner programme.

“It’s basically a call to action,” says Mariam Al Qubaisi, Etihad Airways’ chief sustainability officer. The idea came up in late 2019 to send a message to the industry: Let’s try everything possible to decarbonise.

The program is based on the Boeing 787, nicknamed the Dream Plane, but Etihad Airways has a similar initiative, called Sustainable 50, for the Airbus A350.

An initiative by Etihad Airways that offers a glimpse into a more sustainable future for air travel
Etihad Airways’ Greenliner program tests sustainable initiatives on Boeing 787 Dreamliner, plain_textCredit: Etihad

Since its inception, the Greenliner program has championed the adoption of sustainable aviation fuels and addressed issues such as plastic waste and inefficient flight paths.

The “Greenliner” moniker is often used to refer to a specific 787, which Al Qubaisi calls the “mascot” for the programme.

As expected, the planes are painted green, as a way to preempt accusations of greenwashing.

“Any project that any airline will launch will always be subject to scrutiny under the umbrella of greenwashing,” Al Qubaisi explains.

“Painting the plane green was a way to challenge that and say it’s for a purpose, and we acknowledge our emissions and say yes, we’re a major emitter, but we’re doing something about it.”

quick solution

An initiative by Etihad Airways that offers a glimpse into a more sustainable future for air travel
Smart navigation technology can help reduce the carbon footprint of a single flight., plain_textCredit: Etihad

Etihad Airways transported the delegates to Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, where the COP27 Climate Summit was held, by adding a stopover to Abu Dhabi on its way to Washington Dulles International Airport.

The flight has been described as ‘zero emissions’ because it runs entirely on sustainable aviation fuel – but, confusingly, the planes used conventional fuel, highlighting the challenges facing both sustainable aviation fuel infrastructure and green initiatives.

The aircraft did not have sustainable aviation fuel on board because current regulations prohibit commercial flights from using more than 50% of sustainable aviation fuel, as not all engines are certified for higher concentrations.

In addition, not all airports have the infrastructure to use them, and green fuel must come from a production facility relatively close to the airport.

Therefore, Etihad Airways purchased enough sustainable aviation fuel to operate the flight, and delivered the fuel to Los Angeles International Airport, which has the necessary infrastructure and facilities. There, the sustainable aviation fuel was integrated into the airport’s refueling system, and used by any aircraft that were refueling that day.

Al Qubaisi calls this a “quick fix” until regulations change, but for sustainable aviation fuels to become more mainstream, more progress is needed.

“The price of sustainable aviation fuel is four to five times the price of conventional jet fuel and it’s limited,” she says. “Only two bodies are allowed to certify it, so until we have more and governments step in to stimulate production, sustainable aviation fuel will remain limited.”

Etihad Airways has used sustainable aviation fuel extensively in its EcoFlights series, which uses the airline’s fleet of 787s and A350s to evaluate new sustainability initiatives.

The most environmentally friendly flight ever was a flight from London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi on October 23, 2021.

Etihad Airways says the flight achieved an overall reduction of 72% in emissions using 38% of sustainable aviation fuel, and has adopted a range of other measures, such as reducing single-use plastic by 80% and delivering baggage via electric tractors.

It was also the first commercial flight to test a new way to combat emissions, using navigation and artificial intelligence to avoid condensation track formation, which consists of ice crystals from aircraft engine exhaust that create temporary clouds that trap heat, causing It contributes significantly to the greenhouse effect of air travel.

However, adjusting the aircraft’s trajectory or altitude can go a long way to solving this problem.

Greener future

Etihad Airways’ EcoFlights piloted a range of technologies aimed at reducing emissions, such as last-minute engine starts and a special foam engine wash that improves efficiency by reducing deposit build-up.

Since then, many of these technologies have entered day-to-day operations, and in recognition of these efforts, Etihad Airways has been named “Environmental Airline of the Year 2022” by the annual Airline Rating Awards.

According to Airline Ratings Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey Thomas, Etihad Airways has shown “clear leadership in pushing for sustainable flight”.

“There is still a lot to be done,” says Al Qubaisi. “This sector has been a source of pollution for many years, and it is time for us to take responsibility for our decarbonisation.”

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