How Can We Decarbonize Airports?

  • This is the second article in a series on the future of sustainable aviation.

    Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the aviation industry today. What changes are needed--in technology, policy, and design--to make sustainable aviation a reality?

  • Last time, we looked at how to build environmentally sustainable aircraft. Designing more fuel-efficient planes, and ultimately changing their fuel source, is an essential step towards decarbonization.

    But building better aircraft is just one piece of the puzzle. Quite a lot of the industry’s emissions are produced on the ground, through wasteful and inefficient airport operations. If we really want to decarbonize aviation, we need to build better aircraft and build better airports. So how can we do that?

    In a nutshell: we need to redesign the terminal, integrate air traffic with high-speed rail, and change the way we monetize ground access.

  • Redesign the Terminal

    Airport terminals are giant structures that host tens of thousands of people a day. They have the carbon footprint of a small city and produce massive amounts of waste. That includes human waste: airport bathrooms have one the highest turnovers of any public facility. It includes food waste: think of all the food that remains uneaten on planes and in lounges. It also includes toxic waste produced when groundwater combines with jet fuel and deicing liquid. Lastly, airports waste energy by heating and cooling enormous spaces, and by lighting terminal areas that remain unoccupied for hours at a time.

    Smart airports understand that reducing waste increases profits. Some recycle human waste and resell it as fertilizer. Others work with local food banks to deliver uneaten food to the poor, which in many places counts as a charitable donation. Smart airports also deploy passive daylighting systems, natural ventilation, and solar panels to cut down on energy bills. Some airports are even building their own microgrids in order to achieve full energy self-sufficiency (see here and here).

  • Lastly, smart airports understand that working with nature is often cheaper and more effective than coming up with a costly engineering solution. Designing wetlands around the airport, for example, is a natural and inexpensive way to detoxify runoff water.

    Smart policymakers can support these initiatives by creating financial incentives that empower airports to decarbonize their operations. They should also support airport redevelopment projects that take aim at two of the biggest sources of CO2: congestion and inefficiency. If we really want to reduce emissions, we need to cut down on taxiing times and minimize the amount of time that planes spend circling the airport while waiting to land. Moreover, many older terminals were designed at a time when energy was cheap and sustainability didn’t matter. They were built with low-quality building materials and are poorly insulated. It’s time to upgrade and replace them.

    Addressing these challenges will require major investments in newer, energy-efficient terminals. It may also entail expanding existing runway capacity. To many observers, these investments may seem counterintuitive. It’s essential that we explain to the public how newer airports—just like newer airplanes—will actually advance the cause of sustainability.

  • Integrate Air and Rail

    Transforming airports into multi-modal hubs—where air traffic intersects with high-speed rail (HSR)—is the second step towards decarbonization. Doing so will empower us to shift short-haul flights to rail, which will lower emissions and open up slots at congested airports. Leading hubs like Frankfurt have successfully positioned themselves as air-rail nodes, making it the bedrock of their business model. Similar patterns are emerging in China: Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport, for example, is integrated with the country’s busiest HSR station.

    Moving forward, we need to combine aviation and HSR into one system that offers passengers seamless connections between both modes of transit. That means when I go to the train station, I can drop off my bags and check them through to their final destination. It also means that I can use one single ticket for both the train and plane legs of my journey. And when my plane arrives late and I miss my rail connection, I’m automatically rebooked on the next train.

    High-speed rail remains woefully underdeveloped in some world regions like North America and the Middle East, leading to a lot of missed opportunities. But overall, this air-rail integration will be good for airports, who can increase their throughput and grow their catchment area through high-speed connections on the ground. And by shifting short-haul traffic to high-speed rail, airports can free up airside capacity for more lucrative medium- and long-haul flights. But resistance from airlines, along with poor coordination between air and land transport ministries, may pose significant challenges. In response, successful airports and successful airlines will develop pilot programs that promote new forms of cooperative governance, cross-investment, and profit-sharing across transport sectors. KLM’s active support of Schiphol’s new air-rail strategy is a promising step in the right direction—as are two major airport HSR projects currently unfolding in Thailand and the UK.

  • Innovate Ground Access

    How people travel to the airport—what transport nerds like myself call ground access—is one of the biggest sources of pollution in the aviation industry. Every day, thousands of passengers and employees drive to the airport, generating enormous quantities of CO2. Convincing them to not come by car would be a huge step towards decarbonization.

    To do that, smart airports and smart cities invest in comfortable and convenient connections between the airport and the surrounding region. In Hong Kong, I almost always take the express train to the airport: it’s quicker than driving, it’s cheaper than a taxi, it runs every 10 minutes and—most importantly—it’s designed for people who are traveling with luggage. Smart airports also incentivize employees to use public transit by offering discounted monthly passes. And in areas where public transport is limited, they’re deploying car-pooling apps to empower their employees to travel together.

    These initiatives sound great in principle, but there’s a big catch. Airports make a lot of money off of parking. Globally, it’s the second largest source of non-aeronautical revenue; and in North America, it’s #1. In our current business model, airports have a huge financial incentive to encourage their customers to drive to the airport. Given the environmental challenges that we face, that business model isn’t future-proof. That’s an uncomfortable truth that many people in our industry don’t want to hear.

    We need to steer airports away from their dependence on parking—but that will only work if we can offer new opportunities to generate revenue. Some airports have started charging a flat access fee to all customers, regardless of how they come to the airport. Others are finding more lucrative uses for the land that is currently occupied by parking. Singapore Changi, for example, recently demolished its central parking facility (pictured above) and replaced it with The Jewel, a mixed-use shopping, entertainment, and hotel complex (pictured below).

  • Final Thought

    Decarbonizing the aviation industry is an extremely complex task. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Moving forward, we need to focus on three goals:

    First, we need to have an honest conversation about what it will take to decarbonize air travel. Right now, most discussions are largely ideological and ignore readily available solutions. It’s essential to educate the public about what we need to change in terms of technology, design, and behavior.

    Second, airports need to make sustainability a priority. Many CEOs think of sustainability as a buzzword, and delegate it to a CSR department that has no money and no power. That’s never going to change unless we can build a new airport business model. The existing one contains big financial barriers to achieving sustainability. We need to replace those barriers with incentives to reduce waste, increase energy efficiency, and adopt new technologies. We also need to promote future-proof revenue sources, like property development, droneports, and access fees, to replace unsustainable ones, like parking.

    Finally, airports can’t achieve carbon neutrality without the support of the public sector, and without the support of the institutional and private equity investors that are playing an increasingly large role in the industry. They will need to provide leadership in capital-intensive areas that require coordination across various sectors, such as terminal redevelopment projects and air-rail integration. Those same investors would also be wise to update the existing business model so that airports can continue to thrive in the face of major environmental and technological disruptions.