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Roundtable: what role should sustainability play in airports’ Covid-19 recovery?

As airports enter a post-Covid-19 era, will they be able to ‘build back better’ when it comes to environmental sustainability? Adele Berti asks experts across the industry to give their opinion on what airports should do next.

Adele Berti: What role should sustainability play in airports’ Covid-19 recovery?

airport sustainability covid-19

Frank Sullivan,
Chief business development officer at BrainBox AI

Sustainability is at the top of the mind for all organisations, whether they are in the commercial real estate market, investors or airlines.

The economic benefits in mitigating costs, while maximising energy efficiency in airports as passenger loads slowly return to pre-Covid-19 levels, is just good business.

Increasingly, as regulations and incentives migrate from city centres to the departure gate, differentiation and alignment with tenant environmental, social and governance goals will emerge as competitive advantages.

airport sustainability covid-19

Murray Rowden,
Managing director for the Americas and global head of infrastructure, Turner & Townsend

Previous economic downturns have seen capital decisions being prioritised over sustainability, but moving forward the two are inseparable.

Despite the pandemic, we have seen announcements from major airline groups of their net-zero commitments, including One World’s routemap, announced in September 2020, to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. 

The message from politicians and investors to the sector is clear: help us on climate change and we will help you in the recovery. For the airport sector, the climate emergency needs to remain a fundamental pillar of a post-Covid-19 business plan.

It is exciting to see that governments are now building sustainability and carbon-net zero requirements into the business case or funding/investment models.

Aviation organisations are adopting a more joined-up approach to sustainable development and operations – reducing emissions at airline level and on/in terminal initiatives by operators and developers.

airport sustainability covid-19

Gavin Steele,
Global head of aviation, Turner & Townsend

Airport operators are starting to think ahead of legislative change to mitigate exponential future costs associated with retrofitting sustainable features into their assets. 

There are many examples of introduced sustainable features into operational airports today. Boston Logan Airport has utilised ‘green’ asphalt in its runway construction and Singapore’s Changi Terminal 4 has installed a green wall to improve air quality, in addition to energy-efficient motion sensors, water-efficient fittings and roof-mounted solar panels.

Solar represents a significant opportunity for airport developers to minimise their reliance on national power; Denver International Airport already boasts an array of solar farms consisting of around 43,000 panels and providing a capacity of around 10MW.

Dubai’s Concourse D, completed in 2016, also incorporates roof-mounted solar as part of its drive to meet sustainability goals.

airport sustainability covid-19

Hans-Joachim Bues,
Senior vice president of communications, Munich Airport

Regardless of the enormous burdens airports have to shoulder as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the aviation industry should determinedly stick to its ambitious climate targets and realisation. I am confident that the complete decarbonisation of aviation will succeed in the long term.

Airports have long been addressing sustainability issues. As part of a sustainability strategy, European airports committed through ACI EUROPE to achieve net-zero carbon emissions for operations under their control at the latest by 2050. 

Thinking ahead and acting with responsibility is the maxim of airports in terms of sustainability. Climate-friendly and resource-saving airport operations are the baseline. To further achieve CO2 neutrality, a large number of CO2-saving technical measures are already being implemented.

The engagement includes numerous measures such as switching apron lighting to energy-saving LED technology, the conversion of vehicle fleets to renewable energies, climate-neutral terminal facades or pre-conditioned air systems cooling and heating the cabin while the aircraft is on the parking position.

airport sustainability covid-19

Robert Hall,
Executive director, Resilience First

The Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the need for resilience at all levels of society. The response has also set into motion some radical thinking on how we will emerge from the crisis in any exit strategy. 

The aviation industry is now facing some major decisions about the way forward.

The current crisis, with airline operating levels slashed in some cases to almost zero and some airports closed, does present the entire industry with an opportunity to rethink its operating model and make sure that it is investing in technologies that can enable it to meet emissions targets and create a sustainable future for itself.

Our recent major report into the resilience of UK airports found that the agility of airports to adapt to both long-term strategic changes and short-term operational shocks is critical in sustaining their competitive advantage and business prosperity.

The Covid-19 lockdown presents both a massive short-term shock and most likely unprecedented long-term strategic change.

airport sustainability covid-19

Chad Timms,
Director, operations at airports, SITA

Sustainability is a strategic imperative for airports in their Covid-19 recovery planning. Greater efficiency will be critical in the recovery for airports, including optimising usage and spend relating to their buildings, infrastructure, energy and water.

Making operations environmentally sustainable will be necessary for airports to encourage passengers to return to the skies in the long-term, especially considering the demographics of future flying populations who are environmentally conscious and actively seeking more sustainable travel options.

Sustainability will be key because airports must comply with existing (and prospective) local and global environmental regulations covering noise pollution, emissions reduction, waste treatment, biodiversity, conservation etc.

Government aviation subsidies – including specific Covid-19 subsidies – also have associated emission reduction conditions that must be met.

Many airports had committed to taking further measures to reduce their environmental impact, which remain in place: IATA members have pledged to reduce aviation emissions in 2050 by 50% less than in 2005 with innovative technologies, sustainable aviation fuel and improved operations and infrastructure.

Over 300 airports worldwide are carbon accredited airports via ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation Program. Over 200 European airports have committed to be carbon neutral by 2050 (ACI Europe).

We expect that the pressure for more sustainable travel will increase, with a demand for cleaner skies. Technology will be vital in delivering these commitments made by the industry and helping airports be more sustainable and adaptable to change in the future.

airport sustainability covid-19

Matteo Mirolo,
Aviation policy officer, Transport and Environment

Airports can play a decisive role in aviation’s decarbonisation as the key infrastructure that allows air transport to flow. Governments should support that role by getting smart about airport aid and setting binding climate conditions when it is granted.

First, airports’ expansion should stop until aviation is fully decarbonised. The logic is irrefutable: while alternatives to fossil fuels in aviation are still under development, building more runways and terminals means calling for more aviation emissions.

Second, especially in most of Europe, new airport projects are an unnecessary luxury that society and the planet cannot afford, many may end up as wasted investments with demand tumbling following Covid-19.

Instead of enabling low-cost carriers to grow exponentially by artificially boosting demand through state-aid, governments need to have a better idea of what counts as essential connectivity.

Finally, airports will be fundamental in driving the uptake of sustainable aviation fuels, specifically synthetic kerosene, so they need to start investing in the infrastructure needed to make this happen.

Airports should not simply see green commitments as a short-term means to access bailouts but rather as a truly long-term investment. For it is aviation’s post-Covid-19 survival, let alone future growth, that depends on finally getting serious about sustainability.