What is sustainability? In most sectors, it’s commonly defined as the balance of environmental, financial, and social goals.
Sustainable practices can reduce the environmental impact of developed infrastructure while at the same time creating financial and operational benefits for a project and social benefits for the community at large. Together, these aspects of sustainability are commonly referred to as the ‘triple bottom line’.
For those who are familiar with this definition, we still sometimes wonder – what does it really mean to be sustainable? How do you get there and how do you know you’ve arrived?
Unfortunately, there is no magic answer. The answer is different for every airport and its unique mix of ownership, operating characteristics, tenants, concessionaires, services, and the region of the world where it’s located.
Airports throughout the world today are challenged more and more to achieve new goals and targets for improved environmental performance, such as aggressively reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and striving for carbon neutrality, while often dealing with scarce funding and limited staff resources.
At the same time, many must serve rapidly growing passenger demand, with increases in service and evolving passenger expectations. As a result, airports need strategies for sustained growth that also control costs and reduce environmental impacts over time.
By starting with a solid plan, an airport can set both short-term and long-term goals for sustainability, set targets to track performance toward those goals, involve key stakeholders that are crucial to achieving targets, and ultimately, maximise efficiency and reduce waste in all processes – hence achieving that elusive triple bottom line.
Planning for sustainability – or the integration of sustainability into the airport planning process – can be applied not only to new development, but also to the operation and maintenance of existing and aging infrastructure.
And it doesn’t only apply to occupied spaces, such as terminal buildings. Unoccupied structures, pavements, and flatworks also benefit from sustainability planning, and can help an airport achieve its ultimate goals.
All categories of airport development and operations can benefit from the integration of sustainability into its routine way of thinking.
Typically, airport projects fall into one of the following categories, either as capital projects or operations/maintenance programmes associated with them:
- Civil – Airside
- Civil – Landside
- Occupied Buildings (airside and landside)
- Unoccupied Buildings (airside and landside)
Projects and programmes in each of these categories are candidates to be considered in establishing a sustainability plan.
Elements of a sustainability plan for airports
Regardless of the type of projects or operational processes that may be included in an airport’s sustainability plan, there are common steps that can be followed to start the planning process.
The results will be unique to each airport, and the level of success depends in part on the extent to which the entire organisation is willing to embrace the vision and the plan. It is therefore important to:
- Establish the environmental context – create a foundational baseline for benchmarking future initiatives;
- Understand current positions on sustainability – comprehend the airport leaderships’ vision of and the organisation’s culture toward sustainability and understand current practices that may already be working towards that goal;
- Develop sustainability goals and targets to achieve your aims – establish a framework, appropriate (and measurable) metrics, and desired timeline for individual categories such as water, air quality, waste, noise, transportation, energy, materials and resources, and green concessions;
- Develop sustainability planning guidance – establish technology strategies/best practices for planners, designers, contractors, operations/maintenance mangers and concessionaires/tenants to achieve the airport’s sustainability goals and targets.
Airports today have many options in how they go about their sustainability planning, and they have many motivators and goals, but no matter how or why it’s done, the key commonality is that all airports undertaking sustainability planning are seeking one overarching thing – increased efficiency. By increasing efficiency, an airport can reduce wastefulness in its processes.
The waste that can be reduced represents an opportunity for potential cost savings as well as better utilisation of available (and often limited) resources, or the time and energy of the airport’s labour force.
Resiliency: the evolution of airport sustainability planning
When you start to think about sustainability in the context of efficiency, it can easily move beyond environmental goals or green initiatives, and when it does, it enters the field of resiliency, which is effectively where the future of airport sustainability is heading.
Resiliency planning is a term that is often associated with assessing your airport’s risk for the unknown events or effects such as a catastrophic event or climate change. How will you deal with an extreme weather event?
Are you prepared to meet the demands of your passengers, tenants, and community at large in the face of a state of emergency?
When you approach resiliency planning as ultimately increasing efficiency of all aspects of airport operations, you can begin to understand the full force of this unique opportunity.
A sustainability plan that considers how to improve the airport’s resiliency will reduce vulnerability to catastrophic weather events and maximise emergency preparedness, reduce risk/insurance costs, and ensure business continuity.
Resiliency planning ensures preparedness for changing conditions, while operating an airport efficiently and safely. Benefits include energy, resource, and operational efficiencies; building redundancy into the system; improved reliability to serve growing demand; reduced reliance on outside initiatives; enhanced the passenger experience; and assurance to passengers, tenants, and stakeholders that an airport can respond to rapidly changing conditions.
Airport sustainability programmes, including resiliency planning, are most successful when they are fully integrated in all aspects of airport development and operation activities.
They are applicable early in the planning and design phases of a project, continuing through construction into day-to-day operations and maintenance, as well as through ultimate decommissioning and demolition. This approach takes into account the lifecycle impacts of processes and equipment and not only minimises total costs, but also overall environmental impacts.
Whether an airport has a fully developed sustainability programme with years of data and lessons-learned to look back on and share with others, or whether an airport is in the development stages of a plan that will someday be an all-encompassing programme, it’s important to understand that anything done to increase efficiency and reduce waste, is going to produce benefits.
Benefits can be realised as lower lifecycle costs when compared to traditional practices. Sometimes we still need to remind ourselves that although sustainable technologies and practices might have higher up-front costs to implement, they can generate significant savings over time.
This requires a comprehensive assessment of costs through the life of a project to fully capture the potential benefits of sustainable best practices. There are real savings being realised on many fronts including financial, resource and environmental – and airports continue to prove this over time.
Looking to the horizon, beyond monetary cost savings, sustainable practices and resiliency planning will reduce an airports’ overall environmental footprint, ultimately benefiting its customers, stakeholders, and local community, and the global aviation industry.