Etihad and Boeing launch sustainable Dreamliner test flights

The Abu Dhabi airline commits to eco test-flights despite the coronavirus pandemic

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Etihad Airways and Boeing will use a brand new 787-10 Dreamliner to test various methods of sustainable flying.

The news was announced on the first day of FIA Connect, the virtual event replacing the Farnborough International Airshow 2020, which was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The move highlights Etihad’s commitment to sustainable flight, something that the UAE's national airline does not intend to renege on, despite the Covid-19 crisis.

This is the seventh iteration of Boeing's ecoDemonstrator programme, which uses commercial aircraft to test innovative technologies in the air.

Ahead of putting its newest Dreamliner into service, Etihad will work with Boeing to use the jet as a test bed for technologies that can help reduce fuel consumption, noise pollution and CO2 emissions. It's the next step in a strategic partnership that the two companies first announced at the Dubai Airshow last year, in a bid to improve airspace efficiency, reduce fuel use and cut aviation CO2 emissions.

The news advances Boeing and Etihad's sustainability partnership, which was first announced at the Dubai Airshow in 2019. Courtesy Eithad

The 2020 edition of Boeing's ecoDemonstrator programme will begin in August, and is the first time it has used a Boeing 787-10.

These Dreamliner test flights will measure aircraft noise from sensors installed on the aircraft and on the ground. Working with industry-leading partners, including Nasa, Etihad and Boeing will harness data that will be used to improve the sound reduction potential of future aircraft design.

The testing programme will run for about four weeks before Etihad takes delivery of its new Boeing 787-10. As part of the same testing programme, another flight will aim to improve airspace efficiency. The test flight will see pilots, air traffic controllers and airline operations share digital information in an effort to optimise routing efficiency.

It’s a step forward in Etihad’s commitment to sustainable flying, something that the airline’s CEO vows will not be derailed.

“It’s a Covid-dominated aviation agenda at the moment, but in no way does it overshadow the work that was going on and the commitments we’ve made to sustainability,” said Tony Douglas, speaking at FIA Connect.

All ecoDemonstrator test flights will operate on a blend of sustainable fuel, significantly lowering the jet’s environmental footprint.

“Industry collaboration is a key aspect of Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator programme that enables us to accelerate innovation. We’re proud to broaden our sustainability partnership with Etihad Airways by testing promising technologies that can reduce emissions, help commercial aviation meet our climate goals, and allow the industry to grow in a responsible manner that respects our planet and its natural resources,” said Stan Deal, Boeing’s chief executive.

'No sustainable silver bullet'

The new test flights are just one part of the puzzle that aviation needs to solve to become more sustainable.

“Etihad has been of the opinion for some time that there’s not one single solution – there’s no big silver bullet – it’s about collaboration and bringing together smart ideas that contribute to more efficient ways of flight,” said Douglas.

The industry has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus, with demand for commercial travel plunging as governments around the world issued no-travel advice and countries suspended international flights. In some ways, this forced pause has highlighted what needs to be done in terms of reducing aviation’s impact on the environment.

"I am optimistic that we can definitely crack this now," said Douglas during the FIA Connect session, entitled 'A Future of Clean Skies'.

“The bridge back from the crisis is the way that the oceans have recovered since the world has not been operating in the same way, or the way forests and animal life has recovered. We know it’s the right thing to do, and aviation has a big part to play in that,” affirmed the Etihad CEO.

Management of motorways in the sky

Etihad and Boeing will work to improve the effiecency of aircraft flying from A to B. Unsplash

A test flight focusing on improving efficiency in the sky is something Douglas is particularly passionate about.

“The roads, so to speak, in the skies were almost laid down by the Romans, because many of them haven’t been reorganised since,” he said, referring to outdated flight routes used by airlines.

“Aircraft seldom fly the optimum route between A and B... There is far too much fuel being burned for all the wrong reasons.”

It’s a point that Grant Shapps, the UK’s Secretary of State for Transport and another panel member at FIA Connect, agreed with.

I'm now passing an airspace bill through parliament that's designed to reorganise the UK's airspace in a way that makes sense – why have aircraft circle around, pump out CO2, increase environmental damage and delay passengers when they could be flying straight in?

“Tony [Douglas] makes a good point re air space, it’s archaic. I’m now passing an airspace bill through parliament that’s designed to reorganise the UK’s airspace in a way that makes sense – why have aircraft circle around, pump out CO2, increase environmental damage and delay passengers when they could be flying straight in?” he said.

This is something that Etihad has been working towards rectifying. “We've made big strides in saving fuel burn through more direct routes, and continuous descent trials on our Greenliner trials earlier this year, however much more needs to be done by ANSP's [air navigation service providers] to enable better routing everywhere,” said Adrian Gane, director for sustainability at Etihad, on the sidelines of FIA Connect.

Despite Etihad’s commitment to sustainable flying, Douglas also admitted that the airline is fighting for survival.

“The commercial implication in the aftermath of Covid suggests that there’s going to be a seismic shape change to the way in which our very industry goes forward," warned Douglas.

"And those who do have the opportunity to move forward will build the industry in response to Covid-19 from a wellness point of view, but also to maintain the drive on sustainability. I think those two aspects will become the ever-present foundation stones going forward,” he added.

Can aviation be a force for good?

Aviation is one way that people around the world connect with one another, something that is likely to be thrown into the spotlight after prolonged movement restrictions that have prevented people from seeing loved ones.

Etihad operates one of the biggest 787 fleets in the world, an aircraft that is 20 per cent more fuel efficient than the previous generation of Boeing aircraft. The airline is on track to exceed current recommendations in carbon offsetting and reduction, and has pledged to a net zero CO2 target by 2050.

"It's a Covid-dominated aviation agenda at the moment, but in no way does it overshadow the work that was going on and the commitments we've made to sustainability,"

However, it’s not an approach that will come cheaply warns Etihad's director of sustainability.

“Nothing comes for free and it’s inevitable that all of us – airlines, passengers and governments – will have to pay for new investment if we're to reach net zero. However there is plenty of leeway to reprioritise what we currently pay for," said Gane.

Earlier this year, Eithad flew test flights designed to study improvements needed in airspace management. In January it operated an eco-flight to Brussels as part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. A subsequent flight to Dublin saw the airline save three tonnes of CO2 largely by optimising route planning and operating continuous ascent and descent operations.

World's first single-use plastic free flight

On April 22 last year, the airline celebrated Earth Day by operating the world's first ultra-long-haul flight without single-use plastic.

Departing Abu Dhabi and touching down in Brisbane, Australia, the 14-hour flight was part of the first stages of Etihad’s plan to reduce its single-use plastics by 80 per cent by the end of 2022. Almost 100 plastic items onboard were substituted for sustainable alternatives, from the bags that normally hold reusable headsets, to cups, cutlery and toiletries.

Etihad is slowly resuming its network after more than three months of suspended commercial services. The airline has most recently announced it will operate services to China from Monday, July 27, bringing its total number of destinations in operation to 59 by August.