Business aviation is an easy target for those who argue that aviation’s impact on the environment is too high to be sustainable. And the industry might well find itself under scrutiny again on April 22, with the observance of the annual Earth Day and its call to take action against damaging climate change.
Rather than just deflect the inevitable criticism with well-practiced lines about this mode of transportation’s balancing contribution to economic good, Farnborough Airport in the UK decided in 2007 to aspire to a more definitive and voluntary response by setting itself the goal of going carbon neutral. Nine years later, in June 2018, the privately-owned business aviation gateway achieved that goal when it became the first airport in the sector to achieve carbon-neutral status as defined by the Airport Council International Europe’s Level 3+ Airport Carbon Accreditation program. It achieved this more than a year ahead of schedule.
In the process, Farnborough cut its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 42 percent, reducing it by 2,183 tonnes per year, and this total has continued to fall since then. Any carbon still being emitted is then offset through approved programs to mitigate the impact of its activities on the environment.
“We wanted to be ahead of the curve on this issue. We wanted to show that we recognize our impact on the environment and show that we are doing something about it,” said Farnborough Airport’s environment manager Miles Thomas. With a degree in biological sciences and past experience as an air traffic controller, he was recruited in 2007 and led efforts to start the journey to carbon neutrality by making a sustainability charter a key part of the airport’s masterplan, spanning 10 years from 2009, and then onwards to 2030.
The sustainability charter addressed just about every aspect of Farnborough’s operations, including carbon emissions, noise, air and water quality, and waste disposal. “You need to take a ‘no stone unturned’ approach to make this meaningful,” Thomas told AIN.
Another key starting point in the plan to make the airport greener was a comprehensive audit of its environmental performance at the end of 2008 conducted by independent experts The Carbon Trust. “We spent three days walking around the building to talk to everyone, and they helped us to categorize the easy wins and come up with a top 20 improvements we could start on right away and then other items that we would need more data for,” explained Thomas.
A key outcome from the audit process was benchmark figures for the airport’s carbon footprint and also data covering not just CO2 but other harmful gases. This got the Farnborough team started on its campaign to achieve the ACI accreditation and also ISO14001 environmental management certification.
With significant financial backing from former airport owner TAG, Farnborough started making investments in more energy-efficient technology while also working with employees to address multiple aspects of procedures and practices. “Raising awareness and understanding among all the people in your organization is critical, and we had to get environmental responsibility into everyone’s job description in a strategy that came down directly from the board,” said Thomas.
In reducing power consumption, the airport’s first step was to stop using heating oil. It switched to natural gas throughout its buildings, including some 1950s-vintage hangars. All pipes were lagged (insulated) and destratification fans were installed to reduce heat loss, as well as automatic heating cutoffs when the doors open. Meters accurately log energy consumption, and this is reviewed four times a year to assess what further improvements could be made.
The London-area airport invested in more efficient lighting throughout the site, replacing older sodium and tungsten lamps with LEDs. Replacing the high mast lights on the apron reduced the wattage draw by 60 percent and also lessened light pollution.
Some solar power has been added to the mix, with a 49-kW peak system feeding the Meadowgate buildings. It has not been possible to install solar panels on Farnborough’s hangars due to their distinctive curvy roofs. Over the past five years, the airport has spent more than $1.3 million on improving its energy efficiency.
To record air quality, there are 13 monitoring devices to measure nitrous oxide levels around the site and more in various locations across the town of Farnborough that collect samples every 30 minutes. This is part of the compliance process for the local government planning rules under which the airport was allowed to increase the number of permitted annual movements to 50,000. The airport is also required to test water quality in local streams and runoffs to guard against contamination caused by spillage from its operations.
Also covered by the same rules are requirements to record aircraft noise with monitors at either end of the runway. Through the Webtrak portal, local residents can monitor movements to see for themselves whether operators are adhering to the required flight paths.
On February 27, new standard instrument departure and arrival routings took effect as part of a new Class D airspace zone approved by the UK Civil Aviation Authority. The new routings allow aircraft to climb faster into controlled airspace, resulting in less noise for surrounding residential areas.
Since around mid-2016, the airport has not been sending any waste materials for disposal in landfills. Essentially, it recycles everything using services based in the UK, rather than shipping materials overseas. “We’ve done a lot of engagement with our customers about waste management, heavily promoting the idea that waste is the responsibility of the waste creator,” said Thomas. “We expect everyone using the airport to follow our requirements for waste separation, and we have 26 streams of waste.”
As part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions from activity related to the running of the airport, but that happens off-site, the company incentivizes employees to use public transportation, bicycles, or ride shares to get to and from work. They can earn vouchers that can be used in the staff canteen.
The airport pays to offset residual emissions as required by the ACI’s carbon accreditation program to address any remaining carbon footprint. To ensure that its offsetting is credible and environmentally robust, the Farnborough team consulted with UK company Carbon Footprint, which recommended suitable programs to support that meet the Verified Carbon Standard in a process that is audited by the Quality Assurance Standard.
“We like to find projects that resonate with our stakeholders and are understandable, such as planting trees,” Thomas explained. Most of these offset programs are outside the UK, but the airport also supports local projects to deliver a positive social and economic impact. For instance, in 2017 it had 3,600 tonnes of carbon to offset and so it planted 3,600 trees in cooperation with local schools and community charities. By 2018, it had reduced the carbon needing to be covered by offsets to 1,650 tonnes and last year the total was 1,700 tonnes.
Securing carbon neutrality status isn’t the end of Farnborough Airport’s green ambitions—it is committed to continual improvement, especially as traffic levels increase. Thomas’s team is looking at improved space heating systems with more sophisticated temperature controls and also moves to ensure that more of the energy consumed by the airport originates from renewable sources. The airport is also considering more solar panels and a possible solar farm, as well as improved battery storage for electricity. Also on the wish list are more electric vehicles to be used on the ramp.
In 2019, traffic increased by 5.3 percent at Farnborough, to 32,366 movements. Before the difficulties posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the company had predicted 3.5 percent growth this year.