Q&A | Staff

Q&A: Proavia on finding sustainability solutions for French airports

Proavia, the French trade association for airports and ATC technology, recently created the ‘French Technologies for Sustainable Airports’ directory to identify skills gaps at French airports and provide solutions from French companies. Julian Turner speaks with Proavia general delegate Marie Carru.

Marie Carru is a general delegate at Proavia, which was founded in 1976 as a joint initiative of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, French equipment manufacturers, and consultants to the airport and air traffic control sectors. Proavia promotes French know-how in these sectors, and informs members about innovations and trends in France and worldwide that are impacting aviation.

Proavia general delegate Marie Carru. Image: Proavia

Sunrise at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Julian Turner: What is the aim of the ‘French Technologies for Sustainable Airports’ directory?

Marie Carru: The first edition of the directory was published in 2017 in order to highlight French expertise in sustainability in airports, which had never before been looked at in a systematic way across all areas of sustainability.

In 2019, Proavia and the French Cleantech network PEXE joined forces and their respective networks to publish the second edition of the directory, ‘French Technologies for Sustainable Airports’, with more than 100 companies listed. 

Handling increasing numbers of passengers every year, airports are at the cutting edge of technology in many ways. In our view, solutions designed to serve passengers as well as airlines, airport operators and air traffic controllers must be innovative, and the same applies to solutions that protect the environment. 

Our directory is designed to be a ready-made source for any airport manager searching for innovative solutions to reduce the carbon footprint of [their] airport, foster a circular economy in its operations, and increase biodiversity in its land use practices.

How were the listed companies identified as providing proven environmental solutions?

Proavia’s members are focused on airport technologies, while PEXE members are focused on environmental protection. Together, Proavia and PEXE mailed a questionnaire to their members to identify their proposed ‘green’ solutions and any existing references in airports. 

In several cases, however, we selected start-up companies without airport references but whose solutions we considered highly innovative and relevant to airport operations. We then jointly reviewed the responses and selected the most relevant and diverse set of enterprises, taking into account the airport’s decarbonisation strategy.

What sustainable skills, technologies and solutions are currently in demand at French airports?

European airports have long been involved in the Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA) programme launched by ACI EUROPE in 2009 and 40 French airports have already signed up for this approach, and are continuing their efforts.

In 2050, all French airports aim to be completely carbon neutral without using offset systems. It is also interesting to note that airports managed by French companies abroad (in Brazil, Chile, Cyprus, Ivory Coast, Japan and Portugal, for example) are equally involved in the sustainability programme.

In order to achieve this goal, French airports, for example, reduce their electric power consumption by replacing older equipment with more energy-friendly equivalents, monitoring the power used by all equipment through captors and [the] internet of things (IoT), and in parallel producing energy with solar panels, geothermal or even sea water air conditioning (SWAC).

sustainability airports

A total of 40 French airports have so far signed up to ACI Europe’s Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA) programme. Image: Proavia

New airport terminals are being designed in tropical countries that utilise the air currents of their site to create “natural air conditioning”, such as on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean.

Another area of increasing importance is managing water sustainably. In the field of wastewater filtration, there are solutions for treating de-icing run-off with aerated gravel filters or wetland filtration planted with reeds. Airports can save water by collecting the rain from roofs as well as deploying monitoring solutions to detect and eliminate possible leakages. With the advent of more extreme weather events due to climate change, airports must plan for new ways to cope with the impact of both flooding and drought on their airfields. 

Promotion of electric vehicles (EVs) on airport platforms and the decarbonisation of airport fleets are two other strategies that are well advanced and which are now being extended by a new wave of ‘intelligent mobility’ solutions such as autonomous EVs.

How do French airports compare with those in other countries in terms of stand-out international sustainable best practices and innovation?

As a vital part of national infrastructure, French airports are of course strongly guided by the sustainability policy objectives of the French Government, which are some of the more progressive in Europe in this regard. 

However, it is very difficult to compare airports with each other since every airport’s level of best practice depends on its unique mix of factors; climate and topography, stakeholder commitment and locally available skills, for example.

Please talk about some of the outstanding companies identified in the Proavia/PEXE directory.

Reunion Island has embarked on a profound change in its energy mix and hopes to become a completely autonomous territory with regards to its energy needs. 

The airport’s objective is to double the surface area and number of passengers from 1.4 million to more than three million, while retaining its current level of energy consumption. Thanks to the expertise of French architects and engineers, the project aims to be the world’s first bioclimatic airport in a cyclonic environment. The terminal is cooled with natural ventilation and has photovoltaic panels.

What does Proavia see as the key sustainability trends at international airports in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic?

Obviously, how airlines will implement their own sustainability and decarbonisation strategies, both at an individual airline level and an industry-wide level (for example, CORSIA), will have a major impact on airports, particularly with regards to changes in operational air traffic management (ATM) procedures such as continuous climb operations/continuous descent operations (CCO/CDO). 

Another key trend post-Covid-19 will be heightened health concerns generally by both travellers and airport workers, which will of course affect all human society. The measures that will accompany this will require new thinking about how to deliver them sustainably – for example, reusable personal protective gear – and will have a substantial, if currently unknown, impact on airport operations.

sustainability airports

In terms of new technologies, it would appear likely that in the medium term EVs, such as vertical take-off and landing (VTOLs) [aircraft], will come into use. While these will probably have a minimal impact on airports’ carbon footprint, the supporting technologies and operational procedures around them will enrich airports’ sustainability ecosystem.

Before Covid-19, public attitudes around the world against or for reducing air travel were becoming well-organised – witness pressure groups like Stay Grounded, for example – and in a post-Covid-19 world the ultimate level of traffic recovery and the nature of new travel patterns will have major structural impacts on airports. 

These will, in turn, affect both the resources and the priorities assigned to sustainability programmes by airports. However, only two months into what could be an existential crisis for many airports, it is impossible to predict how deep and lasting any impacts will be.

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