The European Commission and the EU have begun action against 20 airlines over “misleading greenwashing practices”, citing issues such as carbon offsetting fees and the promotion of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) without clarifying its impact. 

While the EU said it would not name the affected companies, major airlines including Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, and SWISS have confirmed they were sent a warning letter by the EC and EU consumer authorities. 

The notice, which told airlines to bring their practices in line with EU consumer laws within 30 days, was sent out after an alert to the authorities by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC).

The BEUC’s involvement follows its launch of a complaint against 17 airlines last year, including some not yet confirmed to be involved in the latest action such as Ryanair, Norwegian, Wizz Air, and Vueling.

Monique Goyens, BEUC’s director general, said the EC’s move showed a “wind of change” around greenwashing in the aviation industry, she said: “It is great news that authorities from across Europe acknowledge consumers have been fooled by airlines’ greenwashing. 

“It is unacceptable that airlines have freely lured consumers into offsetting their flight’s emissions, sometimes at a high price. One can never be sure that the trees planted to compensate a flight’s high emissions will capture the carbon back into the ground – if they are planted at all.” 

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Practices highlighted by the EC in its warning included using terms like “green” and “sustainable” in an absolute way, claiming that airlines are moving to net zero without an independent monitoring system, and presenting an emissions calculator to customers without providing scientific proof to back up its results. 

Notably, the commission also took issue with the industry’s growing promotion of SAF, which has become a key focal point for many airline net zero strategies but provides only a 20% reduction in emissions if used in a full blend and is currently mostly used in blends below 10%. 

European airline association Airlines for Europe (A4E), while recognising the importance of transparency around sustainable practices, raised particular concern about the mention of SAF and its perceived juxtaposition against the EU’s own rules. 

A statement said: “We are particularly concerned about the remarks on SAF and the requirement for a clear justification of their environmental impact. 

“The EU has implemented an ambitious SAF mandate, supported and endorsed by the European Commission, and the science supports that this is a more sustainable alternative to regular jet fuel.” 

A4E also said that it was engaged in ongoing discussions fostered by EU bodies to develop a common methodology for membership airlines to communicate their sustainability practices and progression against their targets. 

The EU’s action against alleged “greenwashing” practices by airlines follows similar action in the UK, which saw the country’s Advertising Standards Authority ban several adverts from Air France-KLM, Lufthansa, and Etihad over claiming they “gave a misleading impression” of the companies’ environmental impacts.