Etihad Airways has become the latest carrier to have its sustainability claims rebuked by the UK’s advertising watchdog, as airlines grapple to get their messaging right on the industry’s most-pressing topic.

The Middle Eastern carrier joins Lufthansa and Ryanair in having complaints over sustainability-focused advertising upheld by the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in recent months. And in a separate development reflecting the rising levels of scrutiny faced by the industry, KLM has faced legal action in the Netherlands over environmental claims made in its “Fly Responsibly” campaign. 

In this case, the 12 April ruling relates to Etihad’s use of the term “sustainable aviation” in two Facebook advertisements seen in October 2022. The ASA rules that in line with its guidance that “absolute environmental claims must be supported by a high level of substantiation”, Etihad’s advertisements gave a “misleading impression of the impact caused by travelling with the airline”.

It continues: “We concluded… that the claim exaggerated the impact that flying with Etihad would have on the environment and the ads breached the code.”

Outlining its judgement, the authority acknowledges that Etihad is taking steps to address its environment footprint. But it says that the airline’s use of the phrase “sustainable aviation” in the initial text of the advertisements was misleading, partly because it appeared before any qualifying information was offered regarding the specific steps being taken by the carrier, meaning consumers might reasonably – and misleadingly – understand it to mean the “whole business” was offering a solution to sustainability challenges.

Neither advertisement gave the context that “sustainable aviation” is a long-term, multi-faceted goal for Etihad, the ASA notes.

Etihad_Greenliner Boeing 787

Source: Etihad Airways

Etihad’s various sustainability moves have included the Boeing 787 ‘Greenliner’, which was deployed to test new environmental products and initiatives

The ASA also cites the fact that air travel continues to produce “high levels of CO2 and non-CO2 emissions which were making a substantial contribution to climate change” and that some of Etihad’s commitments would only deliver results “years or decades” into the future, which also made its use of the term “sustainable aviation” misleading.

“Further to that, initiatives such as reducing single-use plastics and using more efficient aircraft were not adequate substantiation to evidence a ‘sustainable aviation’ claim,” the ASA rules.

It goes on to highlight the lack of “initiatives or commercially viable technologies in operation within the aviation industry” that would substantiate Etihad’s use of “sustainable aviation” in a way that would be reasonably understood by consumers.

In its response to the ASA, Etihad said it was taking “bold” steps on sustainability and that it had received a number of awards for its work on the issue. It also argued that consumers would not interpret its use of the phrase “sustainable aviation” as meaning it had “an absolute solution” to the environmental impact of aviation.

But the ASA ruled the advertisements breached its guidelines on “misleading advertising” and “environmental claims”.

Writing in a recent issue of Airline Business, the chief executive of Simpliflying, Shashank Nigam, cited the positive impact of United Airlines’ “chief trash officer” campaign in arguing that carriers should focus on storytelling, rather than broad-brush statements, when it comes to publicising sustainability efforts.