Sustainable Airports

Sustainable Airports
By Dr. Axel Laistner

Air transportation in general and its environmental impact have seen an ever increasing amount of attention from politicians as well as from the public. Specifically, airports and their infrastructure present complex focal points with a multitude of potentially beneficial measures and actions regarding sustainability. Starting with this issue, this column endeavors to present different aspects or interesting examples regarding the subject of sustainable airports.

Three major technical sectors can generally be distinguished in which air transport sustainability can be addressed: 1. aircraft aerodynamics, their power plants and fleet renewal; 2. airspace management, flight path, and flight duration; and 3. airport infrastructure, operations and capacity optimization.

Major improvements have been made in the development of aircraft and their power plants over the past forty years. Modern aircraft have reduced fuel consumption by 70 per cent since the early 1970s. Their perceived noise level per aircraft has even decreased by 90 per cent. While there is still room for improvement in this sector, it is far ahead in its drive for efficiency and cleanliness of both the airports and airspace management.

Now, and in the immediate and medium-term future, airspace and airports are the sectors where relevant issues on sustainability can and need to be addressed without much delay.

European governments have proceeded with rather timid steps towards a single European Sky for an embarrassingly long time now, which would be an urgently needed structure with an environmental-savings potential in fuel needs and flight time reductions in double-digit percentages, according to airline organizations.

Operating in a rather more diversified arena, with their many owners and each having their own individual situation, airports present a huge potential for the short-term implementation and evaluation of environmentally beneficial choices in this industry. As large airports represent the technical complexity of small cities, there are a multitude of methods and focal points for environmental measures that can be targeted individually or in strategic packages as appropriate.

An initial short list of technical sustainability potentials should include: reduction of energy consumption needs; sustainable building design and refurbishment; regenerative energy production using buildings, roofs and other installations; further development into vehicle fleet power systems; aircraft support systems at airports to avoid auxiliary power unit operations; additional noise reduction potentials; water-cycle management systems; biotope development.

However, sustainability encompasses many more fields than energy and environmental concerns. The embedding of airports within their surroundings also needs to be considered with regard to the social, political, economic, and human contexts.

A non-exhaustive short list of questions and problem areas to be addressed is: ownership issues of buildings, infrastructure, systems and vehicles; operational availability, redundancies, security of new systems; recovery of investment cost in a regulated market (airport fees); timeframe of realization, depreciation of investments existing and new, decision making and planning in accord with or in spite of local political bodies, etcetera.

As it is, we come from a promising starting point on the way to airport sustainability. Airports are at the forefront of technological developments in many a industry, and are often the test beds for the implementation of new technologies. The general, functional setup and the operational processes at airports are similar worldwide, which makes the transfer of experience from one airport to the next one generally easier. The airport industry is already implementing sustainable steps in individual projects all over Europe and North America, and increasingly all over the world as well.

However, reliable decision-making criteria and metrics on implementation experience and operational results of sustainable technologies at airports are needed to further sustainability issues at airports, but are currently not available. It mostly depends on the individual technical manager of an airport or the quality and experience of a contracted engineering or architectural consultant to make things happen.

Sustainable airports are an as yet far but inevitable goal for all of us. It promises to be a very interesting and diverse journey.

Dr. Axel Laistner started his career as a mechanical engineer with a focus on energy systems. Having worked for five years in urban supply and development engineering, he has been working in the field of airport design, construction and maintenance for the past twelve years.

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