Sustainability To Move up Agenda as Airports Emerge from Pandemic

 - March 2, 2021, 1:15 AM

The pressure to find solutions to dilemmas caused by aviation’s environmental impact has been building for decades. While the airlines have traditionally been regarded as the prime culprit in the war to curb emissions, airports are finding that there is more they can do to build sustainable futures, as the effort to emerge from the pandemic gathers momentum.

“COVID-19 has caused an unprecedented crisis that disrupts the aviation sector and brings significant uncertainty regarding the future,” said the Airport Carbon Accreditation Interim Report, published by the Airport Council International (ACI) February 5. The program now oversees 333 accredited airports, 164 of them in Europe. International facilities at Dallas-Fort Worth (U.S.), Delhi (India), and Christchurch (New Zealand), rank as the program’s top three peers.

“Besides protecting human health, undeniably, the priority is ensuring airports’ solvency and preparing a safe restart of operations. At the same time, climate change remains the greatest long-term challenge we face, so we should use this crisis as an opportunity to ‘build back better’ by cutting carbon from flying. It will be key to ensure that climate action remains one of the priorities on the airport agendas—it is needed to safeguard the viability of the airport industry.”

ACI claims its program adheres to the Paris Agreement, which is based on protocols laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a rules system similar to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

It was only a decade ago that the International Civil Aviation Organization formulated the need for economic, social, and environmental progress, the three pillars of aviation sustainability. Since then, it has sought to promote state action plans, sustainable alternative fuel, market-based measures, and global aspirational goals as means to improve sustainability in aviation.

Changes in lifestyle post-Covid-19 will only augment the ways in which aviation is seen as problematic for the environment, but airlines and airports will have to survive the ongoing damage first.

The ACI said in September that 2020 passenger traffic at Middle East airports would fall 250 million, from the 420 million projected pre-Covid-19, to 170 million. Last year, regional airports were expected to lose 60 percent of their 2019 revenues, or around $8 billion. In 2020, Dubai International, the world’s busiest international airport, saw throughput fall 70 percent, to 25.9 million.

A November webinar presented by Tarsus F&E Middle East, organizer of the Dubai Airshow, was designed to burnish the UAE’s credentials at the vanguard of sustainable global airport development. Participants on a panel on airports’ support for sustainability included representatives of facilities based in Bangalore, India, and Edmonton, Canada, and an official representing a European airline.

Lakshminarayanan Sankaran, v-p engineering and maintenance at Bengaluru International Airport, said: “For any airport to keep sustainable in its focus, you need to have economic, environmental, and social sustainability. [But] without business, you have nothing to do that.”

A greenfield facility launched in 2008 to replace a congested downtown airport, Bengaluru handled 33 million passengers in 2019, a figure expected to fall to under 9 million last year due to the pandemic. It runs on 98 percent renewable energy and, of the 169 global airports outside Europe in the scheme, is one of only 13 airports to stand at ACI Airport Carbon Accreditation Level 3-plus or higher.

“Bangalore international Airport is a greenfield airport taken out of the [land belonging to the local community],” he said. “Naturally, we are looking at social sustainability, [for] the community surrounding us. We would like to be energy-neutral by the end of the 2020 financial year. We would like to be water positive by [the end of] 2020, and also to send zero waste to landfilling by 2021.”

A “fine balance” needed to be struck between maximizing use of contact gates for passenger boarding, as opposed to ferrying them to remote stands on emissions-hungry buses, as this would raise demand for air-conditioning within the terminal. To remove reliance on taxi and bus access to the facility, a metro connecting the airport to the city center is expected to become operational in 2025-26.

Edmonton International Airport, a major driver of the community’s wider economy, at $3.2 billion of economic output, provides 26,000 jobs in the Edmonton Metro Region. Hana Galal, manager, sustainability and planning, has helped add Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification into its facilities management program, as well as build partnerships with local businesses and cultural, sporting, and educational institutions.

“2020 has been a milestone in our energy and emissions work,” she told the panel. “Even through Covid-19, the decision was made to continue with [our] commitments. It’s about that long-term commitment and making the decision that the recovery will have those sustainability elements.”

Last July, EIA announced an investment into a 120-MW solar farm, to be located at a 637-acre site on the west side of the airport, and construction and implementation of a new cogeneration plant to provide the terminal with heat and electricity soon followed.

“Five years ago, the executive team decided to set a clear energy target for the business,” she said. “We started to learn more about the business and study different pieces of the terminal. Where is the energy being used? How is our facility working? How are our vehicles functioning? What’s happening with airlines and various businesses on the property? With that assessment, there’s also the recognition that it’s not just about the technology and the brick-and-mortar facility; it’s about people and processes.”

Responsible for the airline’s relationships with 36 airports in the MENA region and beyond, Sohail Ali, senior v-p operations, Middle East and Africa (Airports), British Airways, complained that current industry dynamics, as mandated by airports, militated against prudent policy.

“Slot coordination is almost anti-sustainability,” he said. “It's telling airlines you need to fly 80 percent of your routes regardless, whether you have customers or not. We've got to move away from that… Airlines will obviously react to that because they want to protect those lucrative slots and timings, the choices that customers want. They want to arrive early or with minimal connecting times.”

In a remark underscoring an across-the-board desire to improve dialogue among industry stakeholders, Ali concluded: “If cost is king, collaboration is queen. We really need to talk to each other.”