The “Greenliner” from Etihad provides a glimpse of a more eco-friendly aviation future
While some delegates at last week's COP27 climate conference were criticized for arriving by private jet, others came in Egypt on flights that were billed as being emission-free because they were totally fueled by sustainable aviation fuel.
The flights were a part of the "Greenliner" program, which was carried out by Etihad Airways, the flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates, as a testing ground for environmentally friendly air travel options.
The ‘Greenliner Program’
Commercial aviation may have a small role on regional weather change given that it produced just over 2% of global CO2 emissions in 2021. The whole impact of air travel on the environment, however, is more complex than just carbon emissions, and it is expected to get worse as more people will need to travel by air in the future.
While electric vehicles and renewable energy sources offer obvious routes to decarbonizing industries like energy and street transportation, it is more difficult for the aviation industry.
The result is that the company is not on track to achieve its internet zero goal by 2050, and is relying on sustainable aviation gas to make up two thirds of that shift (SAF). Although it is made of waste products and has the potential to reduce emissions by 80% on average, it currently only makes up 1% of the global jet fuel market. Something wants to change immediately.
As a result, SAF is one of the crucial elements of the "Greenliner" program. According to Mariam AlQubaisi, head of sustainability at Etihad, "it's effectively a call to action." "The concept to launch a message to the industry: let's attempt everything possible to decarbonize came about in late 2019." The program is built around the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, although Etihad has a similar plan focused on the Airbus A350, called Sustainable50. Since its inception, Greenliner has promoted the use of SAF and addressed issues, including plastic waste and ineffective flight paths.
AlQubaisi refers to this particular 787 aircraft as the program's "mascot," and the term "Greenliner" is frequently used to describe it. Unsurprisingly, it is painted green, which, according to her, serves as a defense against charges of greenwashing.
She says that "greenwashing" will always be a factor in any project that an airline launches. "A method to refute it and assert that the plane is dedicated to a goal was to paint it green. We are acknowledging our emissions and admitting that we are a significant emitter, but we are taking action to reduce them."
A rapid fix
In addition to its usual Washington Dulles to Abu Dhabi flight, Etihad added a layover to ferry participants to Sharm El Sheik in Egypt, the location of COP27. Despite being totally powered by SAF, the flight was advertised as being "emission-free" even though the aircraft really utilized conventional jet fuel.
The apparent ridiculousness draws attention to the difficulties in conveying ecological programs and SAF infrastructure. As not all engines are licensed for greater concentrations, current regulations forbid commercial flights from using more than 50% SAF. Hence the plane was devoid of SAF.
Additionally, not all airports have the equipment to use it, and in order to prevent counterbalancing the reduction in flight emissions with those from transportation, green fuel must be produced close to the airport.
Therefore, Etihad purchased enough SAF to power the aircraft and shipped the gas to Los Angeles International Airport, which has the necessary facilities and services. There, the SAF was integrated into the airport's standard fueling infrastructure and used by whichever planes were refueling that day. This procedure, called "Book & Claim," is currently the only way for an aircraft to claim that it is using 100% SAF. Instead of being offset on one specific trip, the emissions are essentially spread out.
AlQubaisi considers it a "quick fix" while waiting for legislation to change, but additional development is needed if SAF is to become more commonplace. "SAF costs four to five times as much as regular jet fuel and is in short supply. SAF will continue to be constrained until we have additional certification bodies and until governments step in to encourage production, "she claims.
In a series of "EcoFlights," which use the airline's 787 and A350 fleet to evaluate new sustainability efforts, Etihad has extensively deployed SAF. On October 23, 2021, a trip from London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi—the airline's most environmentally friendly flight ever—was the result of all of these efforts.
According to Etihad, the aircraft used 38% SAF (through "Book & Claim") and a variety of other strategies, like as decreasing single-use plastic by 80% and employing electric tractors to haul luggage, to achieve a 72% overall decrease in emissions.
Additionally, it was the first commercial trip to test a cutting-edge technique for reducing emissions by avoiding the development of contrails using navigation and artificial intelligence. These vapor trails, which result in transient clouds that trap heat and considerably add to the warming impact of air flight, are produced when ice crystals condense around the exhaust gases spewed by aircraft engines. However, changing the flight path or altitude can make a significant difference.
"The warmth you avoid by just giving the trip a little bit extra time is up to 60%, if not more," says AlQubaisi. The good thing about this is that the system gets smarter the more we use it thanks to specialized algorithms.
An eco-friendly future?
With regard to lowering emissions, Etihad's "EcoFlights" have tested a variety of technologies and procedures, including an optimized climb and continuous descent, last-minute engine start-up, single-engine taxi procedures, and washing the engine with a specialized foam that increases efficiency by lowering deposit buildup.
In appreciation of these efforts, Etihad was named "Environmental Airline of the Year 2022" at the annual Airline Ratings awards. Etihad has since incorporated many of these methods have since been incorporated into routine operations. Geoffrey Thomas, editor-in-chief of Airline Ratings, claims that Etihad has demonstrated "obvious leadership in the fight for sustainable aviation."
There is still plenty to be done, according to AlQubaisi: "It's time we face up to our responsibilities to decarbonize. This industry has had free reign on pollution for many years."
She continues, "Hopefully, you'll hear of more airlines joining the Greeliner program because it doesn't matter who does it first — it matters who does it better. "We can do better together, because sustainability is not an area for competition, it's an area for collaboration.
In short, the Etihad’s ‘Greener’ shows the potential for a more sustainable future for aviation. They are putting a lot of effort to achieve their Ecoflight goals and make our sky clearer than ever!
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