On April 30, 2024, the European Commission announced the launch of an action plan against 20 airline companies, in cooperation with the European Union (EU) consumer authorities, due to deceptive greenwashing practices. This action plan focuses on additional charges passed onto consumers for supporting climate projects or using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), as well as the disclosure of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

In a letter sent by officials from the European Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) Network, airlines are invited to clarify their practices to align with EU consumer law, and they are warned that failure to provide the necessary clarifications could result in sanctions by CPC authorities.

Companies often justify the extra charges to consumers by the higher cost of low-carbon fuels. However, they fail to provide necessary evidence regarding the carbon content and sustainability of the fuel used.

The European Commission’s action follows complaints from the European Consumer Organization last year targeting several European airlines for misleading climate-related claims and asking European authorities to stop misleading claims that give consumers the impression that air travel is sustainable. This action plan also came after complaints from consumers who had to pay extra “green fees” based on misleading environmental claims and sought refunds.

The EU’s announcement is the latest in a series of greenwashing actions against airline companies, including a Dutch court ruling against KLM for misleading claims about aviation’s environmental sustainability and last year’s decision in Austria that found Austrian Airlines’ advertisements, stating they offered CO2-neutral flights using 100% sustainable aviation fuel, to be misleading to consumers.

According to the European Commission’s announcement, practices among airline companies that could be misleading include creating a false impression that additional fees for financing climate projects or alternative fuel usage can reduce or completely offset CO2 emissions, using the term “sustainable aviation fuel” without clearly justifying the environmental impact of the fuel, using terms like “green” or “sustainable” without absolute certainty, and making net-zero emissions claims without clear and verifiable commitments, targets, or independent monitoring systems.

Other identified practices include providing a “calculator” that shows a flight’s emissions without scientific evidence and comparing flights’ CO2 emissions without providing sufficient information about the elements behind these comparisons.

The new action plan follows a series of legislative proposals launched by the European Commission to protect consumers from greenwashing claims. These proposals include banning unverified general environmental claims such as “eco-friendly” or “biodegradable,” as well as claims based on emission offsetting schemes in the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive and the Consumer Rights Directive and requiring companies to independently verify their environmental claims with scientific evidence in the Green Claims Directive.

As part of the effort to empower consumers in the green transition and combat greenwashing, the European Commission expects airline companies and other sector operators to use environmental claims responsibly.