Etihad Airways of Abu Dhabi has joined the fleet of airlines whose green claims have been shot down in flames by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, following in the contrails of Ryanair and, more recently, Lufthansa.  

And once again, the ASA has demonstrated its commitment to tackling climate change, not only by taking a zero tolerance approach to net zero claims, but also by giving the green light to its own investigations, without even waiting for complaints to be received from lobby groups or concerned citizens. The ASA clearly sees this crusade as an important part of its raison d’etre. And why not? But if Nigel Farage and his squadron of climate change deniers ever succeed in persuading the government to hold a referendum on net zero, the ASA may wish that they had taken back control of political advertising to prevent politicians claiming that there is no such thing as man-made climate change. (Perhaps I should stop flogging that particular dead hobby horse, but what’s the point of cracking down on greenwashing only to give a free pass to climate change denying politicians?)

The ASA’s decision (published 12th April 2023) concerned two Facebook ads which the ASA spotted in October 2022. To be fair, Etihad's claims make Lufthansa’s recently condemned claims seem positively modest. 

The first ad said “We understand the impact flying has on the environment. That’s why we are taking a louder, bolder approach to sustainable aviation”. An embedded video included supers which stated, “With Etihad you’ll earn Etihad Guest Miles ….ETIHAD GUEST CONSCIOUS CHOICES ….every time you make a Conscious Choice for the planet”.  Finally, another super read “Environmental Airline of the Year for 2022 in the Airline Excellence Awards” with a golden rosette emblazoned with the legend “Airline Ratings ENVIRONMENTAL AIRLINE OF THE YEAR ETIHAD AIRWAYS 2022”.

The second ad ‘recycled’ some of the same text with another video, and a super claimed “At Etihad, we are cutting back …on single-use plastics … and are flying the most modern and efficient planes. Flights with a smaller footprint.” The reference to single-use plastics was accompanied by an image of a tray and cutlery. There was also a website address, “Discover more at"

What a relief! You can continue to fly to Dubai for a cheeky long weekend in the sun without contributing to global warming, provided you don’t use single-use plastic cutlery and trays to eat your meal. However, those cynics at the ASA were concerned that the claims exaggerated the environmental benefits of flying with Etihad.

In their defence, Etihad said that “sustainable aviation” was not intended as an absolute solution to the environmental impact from aviation, but would be understood as a “long-term and multi-faceted process” which included an aspiration to reach “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050. 

Etihad also said their “bolder” approach included the use modern, fuel efficient aircraft and the development of Sustainable Aviation Fuel production in the UAE, as well as testing contrail management mechanisms and optimising aircraft operations to save fuel. Finally, Etihad pointed to various airline industry awards schemes for sustainability, which sound neither independent nor credible. 

Unsurprisingly, the ASA concluded that Etihad's defence didn't fly. They noted that neither ad mentioned the airline’s aspiration to be “net-zero” by 2050 or positioned “sustainable aviation” as a long-term aspiration. While Etihad were taking steps to reduce emissions, air travel continues to produce high levels of CO2 and non-CO2 emissions which make a substantial contribution to climate change. The various initiatives cited by Etihad would only deliver results years or decades in the future, while reducing single use plastics and using more efficient aircraft were not adequate substantiation for a "sustainable aviation" claim. The claims about sustainable aviation therefore exaggerated the impact that flying with Etihad would have on the environment and the ads breached the CAP Code.

The most significant point for airlines was the ASA repeated a similar comment that appeared in their recent adjudication against Lufthansa, “we understood that there were currently no initiatives or commercially viable technologies in operation within the aviation industry which would adequately substantiate an absolute green claim such as “sustainable aviation” as we considered consumers would interpret it in this context.”

This, however, may be the least of Etihad’s problems. In Australia, an aviation emissions advocacy group called Flight Free Australia has lodged a complaint with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission which relate to Etihad claims for “net zero emissions by 2050” and “Flying shouldn’t cost the earth.” The lobby group argue that these are misleading claims that Etihad does not have significant environmental impact and they have reasonable grounds for expecting their plans (if they exist) will achieve net zero by 2050. If the ACCC finds this to be an administrative infringement, they can issue fines of $16,500 for each breach, but if they take the airline to court, this could result in fines of more than $50m or 30% of its turnover during the period that the ads were published.

The complaints by Flight Free Australia is another example of an environmental pressure group using advertising regulation as a cheap and easy way to challenge what they consider to be greenwashing, and has echoes of the complaints to the UK's ASA by Ad Free Cities against HSBC, which attracted considerable negative publicity for the bank.

Considering the class action being undertaken in The Netherlands against KLM, it is clear that airlines need to buckle up, as they about to hit turbulence around the world if they try to position themselves as anything other than bad for the environment.