The Green Team: How Etihad and Boeing Are Fostering Eco-Friendly Innovation


The biofuel-operated Greenliner will be deployed on select Etihad flights. Image via Etihad Airways

Etihad and Boeing have partnered on a program testing ideas to reduce air travel’s environmental impact. 

How do you take one of the most fuel-efficient aircraft and improve its ecological footprint? That’s the question Boeing and Etihad Airways have teamed up to answer with a specially themed 787-10 Dreamliner dubbed the Greenliner. “Etihad will be using this airplane as a test bed for processes and ideas that it can roll out to its broader fleet,” says Sean Newsum, Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ director of Environmental Strategy. 

Etihad, which has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2050, is expected to fly the Greenliner on scheduled services across its route network using biofuels. Although biofuels aren’t unheard of (and other airlines, including JetBlue, Lufthansa and Swiss International Air Lines have announced flights that will operate on them), Newsum says the cost and scale of them are still a challenge.

With this in mind, Boeing and Etihad are using the Greenliner to test biofuels for real-world applications. The 30 percent biofuel blend used on its recent delivery flight from Charleston to Abu Dhabi is drop-in-replacement compatible, and there’s a saltwater-tolerant, plant-derived biofuel that can be produced in commercial quantities in the making.

“Its aim is to have this be a catalyst not just for themselves, but the broader industry.” – Sean Newsum, Boeing Commercial Airplanes

For a test flight from Abu Dhabi to Brussels, electric tractors helped ferry freight and luggage between the terminal and plane, and expedited taxi time from the terminal to the runway, which kept engines from running needlessly. At both ends of the flight, Etihad plugged into the ground power provided by the airport terminals as opposed to the aircraft’s fuel-based auxiliary power unit. And for onboard service, most single-use plastics were replaced with items such as wheat-bran-based plates, paper-wrapped headsets, lightweight metal cutlery and recyclable water boxes.

Boeing’s partnership with Etihad is just one of the steps the manufacturer has taken to green-up the industry. In 2010, Boeing launched the ecoDemonstrator, an incubator for new, eco-focused technologies now in its sixth iteration. Over the years, more than 100 technologies have been tested, with over a third of them appearing aboard commercial aircraft: apps providing pilots real-time weather data to facilitate fuel-efficient rerouting; recyclable carpet tiles that are quicker to install and last up to four times longer; and OLED displays for cabin ceilings, virtual windows and in-flight entertainment, which offer a 20 percent weight reduction.

There’s hope the Greenliner will follow a similar trajectory. Etihad’s intent is that this will be a long-term program, with the next flight scheduled for Earth Day on April 22. And at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the airline said the Greenliner is an “open invitation” for collaborators to join their mission. “The aim is to have this be a catalyst not just for themselves, but the broader industry,” Newsum adds. 

As the UAE’s second-largest airline, Etihad operates more Dreamliners than any other carrier in the region, making it an ideal partner for this endeavor. Since the Dreamliner was introduced in 2011, Boeing says, its carbon-composite fuselage and wings have saved 41 billion pounds of fuel when compared to the aircraft it replaced – the equivalent of taking 11€¯million cars off the road for a year. 

“Plant Therapy” was originally published in the 10.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.