A New Approach to Airport Sustainability

Blog Post 1D

Airport Urbanism is an unprecedented study of airports and air travel. In my last post, I introduced two of the book‘s key insights, and discussed how new types of passengers—especially ones from Asia—are creating new opportunities for airports, airlines, and concessions operators.

Today’s post introduces a third insight:

Airports can profit from “going green”—but only if we take a fundamentally new approach to sustainability.

Whether they like it or not, airport operators and airlines are coming under increasing pressure to serve as socially and environmentally sustainable “good citizens.” With an eye towards climate change, many people have become increasingly dissatisfied with the air and noise pollution that airports create. They’ve also grown more vocally opposed to airport expansion plans—even when those plans are crucial for the economic development of the wider region.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 18.18.51 19ls1p5

Both of these trends are especially visible among younger generations and the influential urban middle class, who have developed a strong interest in historic preservation and environmental protection. What I’m describing is already a reality in Europe, North America, and Japan, and is becoming a growing concern throughout much of Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Compounding these challenges, in many cities we find an airport area that is growing very quickly, but that is surrounded by a hinterland whose population is stagnating economically. The benefits that the airport provides to its catchment area as a whole are often missing in the local communities just beyond the perimeter fence. Here, airport authorities face pressure from local politicians, who call on airports to mitigate their environmental impact on local communities by providing them with more tangible economic benefits.

What may at first glance look like a contradiction—how can an airport develop profitably, yet also minimize its impact on the surrounding region?—is in fact highly feasible if we adopt a fundamentally new approach to what it means to be “sustainable.” That requires developing strategies that both build on the existing strengths of the airport’s hinterland and seek to strengthen the relationship between air passengers and the communities surrounding the airport.

Layover tourism, which has been successfully implemented at many Asian hubs, is a good example of what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever been to Tokyo’s Narita airport, you’ll have noticed the legions of long-haul passengers who are transferring between destinations in North America and Asia, and who often have pretty long, and pretty dull, layovers.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 18.59.33

As a creative alternative to hanging out in the terminal, Narita offers layover tours, typically three hours long, of the region surrounding the airport. These tours emphasize sites of historic importance and natural beauty, such as temples, rice paddies, hiking trails, and organic farms. Passengers can choose to go on their own or be accompanied by volunteers, mainly students and retirees from local communities, who would like to practice their language skills and learn more about foreign cultures.

In partnership with the city of Narita, the airport organizes free tea ceremonies, and sites these strategically along shopping streets where tourists can buy local snacks and handicrafts. Another tour offers passengers a “Japanese Country Life Experience,” starting with a “nature walk” through rice paddies and hydrangeas, and ending in a visit to a restaurant that serves locally grown food.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 19.00.41 Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 19.01.36

Through layover tourism, the communities surrounding Narita can tap into the flow of air passengers in order to sustain the local economy, and provide both meaningful employment and volunteering opportunities for the local population. In return, passengers enjoy an authentic snapshot of local culture: one that will hopefully make them eager to come back for a longer visit. So rather than thinking about air and noise pollution, travelers associate the airport with the places that they visited during their layover: farms, hiking trails, and other interesting local attractions.

These layover tours, and the jobs that they create, also broadcast the positive economic impact that the airport has on local communities—and that’s definitely a boon for airport operators. In a fascinating study, a team of Swiss researchers found that people tend to complain more about aircraft noise if they live in communities that have weak economic links to the airport. By contrast, residents of towns where many people work in airport-related jobs are much less likely to complain—even if the overall level of noise, measured in decibels, is significantly higher.

Layover tours are just one example of how strengthening the bonds between passengers, the airport, and communities located in the airport’s hinterland can produce mutually beneficial outcomes that are both profitable and sustainable.

And as I’ll argue in the next post, improving the relationship between those three sets of actors—that is, between passengers, the airport, and the airport’s hinterland—is crucial for addressing the key challenges facing airports today, and for opening up future development strategies. In fact, the relationship between those three actors is so important that it’s also the basis for the Airport Urbanism (AU)  development model, and for the AU research method.

More on that next time!