Planning for a greener future

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As part of Passenger Terminal World’s 25th anniversary celebrations, Hazel King speaks to Graham Beardwell, director, Arup, about the future of sustainability in the aviation industry

What are the main sustainability challenges facing the airport industry in the next 20 years?

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and the 169 targets that underpin them demonstrate how broad and diverse the consideration of sustainability needs to be. Aviation has the ability to impact on all of them, in some cases positively and in others less so. So it is important to consider the balance and the positives when considering the challenges. Aviation is a driver of sustainable development, bringing together people, businesses and communities, supporting trade and tourism, and providing opportunities.   

The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming a priority for most industries, including aviation. With increasingly demanding targets, including for the UK to reach ‘net-zero’ emissions by 2050, the sector will need to continue its forward-thinking and innovative approaches in addressing this.

One such approach is the improvement of aircraft design. With each new generation of aircraft there is, on average, a 15-20% improvement in fuel efficiency. Aviation currently accounts for approximately 2% of carbon emissions worldwide, but with air passenger numbers expected to double by 2037, the pace in improvements needs to be stepped up.

Considerable improvements have been made in reducing aircraft noise, with modern aircraft being 75% quieter than those of 50 years ago. Further improvements can be expected with developments in engine and aircraft design and modernization of airspace. However, a potential counter to this is the increase in aircraft traffic expected.

Some airlines are now offering zero waste flights or publishing deadlines by which they will phase out single-use plastics and non-recyclable materials. This can apply to in-flight and terminal passenger activities as well as aircraft components. There is a lot more that can be done, with over five million tonnes of cabin waste having been created in 2016.

There is also a continued need to reduce the impact of airports and air travel on the immediate local infrastructure. Getting cars off the road and changing the way people travel to and from airports is integral to this. Making better use of, and integrating developments in, rail, autonomous vehicles and other means of transport will be a priority.

Finally, some more positive challenges. The aviation industry can leverage its ability to promote positive societal change. The industry needs to continue to think about how it promotes equality – whether with regard to gender, race, culture or other – as well as social mobility and a culture of opportunity globally. Corporate social responsibility is high on both the public and policymakers’ agendas, so looking at sustainability holistically will be a key issue over the next 15-20 years.

What investments will airports need to make to ensure they remain sustainable/improve their sustainability levels?

Airport operators will need to think about their entire estate when it comes to investment. There is often a temptation to focus on shiny new terminals with cutting-edge design and innovative features to address the sustainability challenge. This is of course important, but airports are often set on large estates that have been built up over many years with numerous older and often lower-performing buildings. To improve the overall profile of the airport as regards sustainability, those investing need to extend their attention beyond just the terminals.

A transition to electrically powered ground vehicles has already begun and will need to continue, enabling use of diesel to be phased out. This will be a very positive step, as pollution from diesel powered vehicles on the ground, while localized, is usually of a far higher intensity than the more widespread emissions attributable to aircraft, posing a higher and more immediate threat to the local environment. Hydrogen-powered buses are already in use in London and are being trialled at Gatwick airport. They have an advantage in that the fuel tank can be charged in as little as three minutes.

Airports also need to be thinking about investment in the facilities and infrastructure needed to facilitate the next generation of more environmentally friendly aircraft, including hybrid and all-electric aircraft and electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles. What this will mean for airport and stand design and the necessary associated infrastructure needs to be considered.

Investment in airspace modernization initiatives is also key. The UK’s Department for Transport is currently working with the CAA on implementing the country’s airspace modernization strategy. The strategy aims to overhaul the structure of the airspace and make use of new technologies to manage air traffic. Improved management will cut delays, allowing quicker journeys and lower emissions, contributing to the global goal to reduce net emissions by 50% by 2050. Better airspace management will also allow better noise management; efficient use of airspace and routes will mean air traffic control can implement planned breaks.

Another significant opportunity is to challenge the traditional landlord and tenant relationship at airports. At larger airports there is often a continuous pipeline of retail fit-out projects taking place throughout the year. Each involves stripping out the previous fit-out, restoring the unit to an empty shell and then fitting it out again with new materials. This is clearly wasteful. Switching to a model that manages risk differently and enables materials to be reused, or for more of the systems to be provided by the landlord, will be more sustainable and less costly.

How will air travel need to adapt and change in line with environmental needs and regulations?

Customers are becoming more environmentally savvy and are starting to vote with their feet, with some operators seeing their weakest growth in passengers in a decade while corresponding rail services are enjoying record numbers. People are thinking more about the environmental impact of their choices and looking at alternative forms of travel as a result. To remain an attractive prospect, the aviation industry has to continue to improve the sustainability of its offering.

CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation), the UN’s system to offset emissions from the aviation sector, will be a key driver of change, and something airlines and airport operators will need to keep high on their agendas. Under the scheme, airlines will eventually need to purchase emission reduction offsets from other sectors or use more environmentally friendly fuels or technologies. So far CORSIA has been adopted by 192 countries and the first stage of the scheme, which was implemented in January, means that emissions from all international flights now need to be monitored and reported.

There are also EU targets to consider. 3.5% of aviation fuel should be from sustainable alternative fuels (SAF) by 2020, and the EU 2030 Climate and Energy framework includes ambitions for a 40% cut in greenhouse gas emissions and at least a 32% share for renewable energy by 2030. SAFs and electric/hybrid aviation technologies will be a key part of the strategy.

Many countries and airlines are now also setting their goals around the use of electric aircraft. Norway, for example, is aiming to have all short-haul flights completely electric by 2040.

Which technologies will have the most impact on sustainability over the next 20 years?

Electric and autonomous vehicles will be a key component of sustainability drives over the next 15-20 years, both airside, landside and around airport sites. They will allow a cut in emissions and an increase in efficiency. They will reduce the impact on the local infrastructure and environment by removing the need for passengers to drive themselves to and from the airport and park their cars.

Airside, meanwhile, new aircraft designs are incorporating technological developments such as e-taxiing, with aircraft using motors on the landing gear powered by batteries. This results in reduced engine use, with a corresponding reduction in fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Applying technological innovation to the design of aircraft propulsion will also, of course, be crucial. This includes all electric aircraft, hybrid-powered aircraft and potentially hydrogen-fueled aircraft. EasyJet/Wright Electric are aiming to have all short-haul flights electrically powered within the next 20 years and there are several prototypes already in development. The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China has developed a prototype hydrogen fuel-cell powered aircraft, which has already completed 10 successful unmanned flights. Electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles are also being developed and numerous prototypes exist, some of which are already nearing a saleable product. This distributed aviation offers another form of short-haul transport solution, with the potential to bring multiple benefits, including major time and fuel savings.

As discussed already, the development and improved commercialization of SAFs and blended fuels are going to play a key role in addressing carbon impact, particularly for long haul flights where electrically powered options may not still be viable.

Which industries are leading the way in sustainability and how can the airport industry learn from them?

The automotive industry is one where obvious steps have been taken to develop new ways of powering vehicles and reducing the environmental impact. We’ve already seen airports play a major role in the development of autonomous vehicles. The Heathrow Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) at Terminal 5, for example, uses battery-powered, driverless vehicles to transport passengers to and from the terminal. The fleet of 21 pods, each capable of carrying four passengers and their luggage, travel along a dedicated 3.8km (2.3 mile) guideway, reaching speeds of up to 25mph (40km/h) on the mainly elevated route. The on-demand vehicles have helped improve passengers’ experience of the airport, reduce congestion and helping to cut emissions by replacing a fleet of shuttle buses.

In 20 years’ time, what renewable energy sources will be in use at airports?

Airport energy usage is often cyclic, with peaks and troughs that are influenced by flight schedules. This provides an opportunity to introduce battery storage technologies so that demand peaks may be levelled out more efficiently and the maximum demand reduced. This enables less capacity and infrastructure being required and better management of energy resources.

Solar power is already used at many airports and will continue to remain important. For example, India’s Cochin International Airport is the first in the world to be powered entirely by solar energy via a 12MW solar plant.

As combustion of gas is phased out, the design of heating via electrically powered air-source and ground-source heat pumps is becoming increasingly common. We are also likely to see more innovative and creative uses of natural resources. Oslo Airport, for example, recently built state-of-the-art facilities to store snow that falls on the airport in the winter, which can be used to cool the airport building in the summer.

What is exciting is that the whole design approach to airport buildings is starting to change, enabling them to be even more efficient with less emphasis on air conditioning and more of a focus on ‘semi-external’ sheltered environments.

Read more predictions for the future of the aviation industry, from retail and F&B design to baggage handling and security, in the June issue of Passenger Terminal World.

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About Author

, editor

With over a decade of experience as a business and technology journalist working in B2B publishing, Hazel first joined UKi in 2011. After taking 18 months off to bring up her daughter and try her hand at marketing copywriting, she returned in January 2018 to do what she loves best – magazine editing! She is now the editor of UKi's Passenger Terminal World and Parcel and Postal Technology International magazines.

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