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.

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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.

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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.

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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!


Three Big Trends That Will Change the Future of Airports

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Airport Urbanism is an unprecedented study of airports and air travel that incorporates the perspective of passengers, airport designers, aviation executives, and urban planners. Based on 10 years of research at more than 50 airports, the book focuses on the rise of Asia in order to better understand what’s driving innovation at airports and airlines around the world.

In this post, I’ve broken down some of my findings into three key insights:

  • The rise of Asia—and Asian consumers—will totally change the way airports are designed, used, and managed.
  • New types of passengers are creating new opportunities for airports, airlines, and concessions operators.
  • You can profit from “going green”—but only if you take an innovative approach to sustainability.

In a follow-up post, I’ll be introducing the Airport Urbanism (AU) development model, explain the AU research method, and discuss how it differs from older models like the “aerotropolis.” I’ll also look at why these older ideas no longer address the key challenges facing airports today.

But first, let’s take a look at those insights.


Insight #1: The rise of Asia—and Asian consumers—will totally change the way airports are designed, used, and managed

Asian air traffic has grown at exponential rates in recent decades—and still has room to grow. This is especially true for medium-haul traffic within Asia—from China to the Middle East, for example—and for long-haul flights between Asia and the rest of the world. A variety of factors are driving this growth: the expansion of Asian immigrant communities in North America, Africa, and Europe, and with it an increase in VFR traffic; as well as state-led economic initiatives aimed at stimulating “intra-Asian” trade. At the same time, expanding middle classes in countries like Malaysia and Thailand are becoming important audiences in the global leisure market, as rising levels of income are leading to larger household budgets for foreign tourism. They are taking advantage of historically low oil prices and intense competition between European and Middle Eastern airlines in order to travel more often and more widely than ever before.

To cite just a few statistics: in 1991, only two million Chinese traveled abroad. Last year, that figure was 120 million. In 2015, every tenth tourist worldwide came from China. France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland were among their top 10 destinations. Meanwhile, Vietnam’s middle class is set to double in the next five years. Oh, and did I mention that many of these travelers no longer need visas to fly abroad?

What this means is that air traffic to, from, and within Asia will increase for the foreseeable future—even if the economy takes a turn for the worse. How can you prepare for the growing influence of Asian consumers, and appeal to their logistical needs and taste preferences? What types of new retail and tourism opportunities do they present? How can you establish strategic partnerships with airports and airlines in the region?

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Insight #2: New types of passengers are creating new opportunities for airports, airlines, and concessions operators

As the first insight suggests, the demographics of air travel are changing fast. To quote the slogan of one Asian LCC: “now everyone can fly.” The emergence of new and rapidly expanding passenger types—such as budget travelers, expat retirees, and middle-class consumers from emerging markets—poses fundamental challenges to all aspects of airport planning, ranging from security screening and passenger flow management to concessions and marketing. Each of these segments has highly specialized transport needs, taste preferences, and consumption patterns. In order to design better airports—airports that are both efficient and profitable, and are focused on the customer experience—it is crucial to understand the needs and desires of these new flying publics.

In 2015, Atlanta surpassed the 100-million passenger mark for the first time. What seemed unthinkable a few decades ago will become a reality at airports worldwide in the coming years. With so many people passing through the terminal, it’s possible to offer a more targeted experience to different passenger types. I’m not just talking about broad categories like “LCC pax” and “business travelers.” Instead, I’m thinking about specific niche markets that have become large enough to be economically significant. One example is passengers from medium-income, high-volume markets like China, Thailand, and Turkey. Religious travelers, medical tourists, and middle-income migrant professionals—there are a lot of them—represent three other high-growth demographics.

Call me an optimist, but I think you can turn the airport into a fundamentally pleasant experience if you offer a wider variety of programming to this expanding audience. Two examples: free stroller rentals for parents of young children, and a pay-per-ride buggy service for senior citizens. A larger and more targeted selection of retail and F&B offerings would improve both the customer experience and profitability of landside and airside terminal areas. Tie-ins between airport authorities, airlines, and concessions operators could guarantee a smooth and pleasant airport experience, from the moment passengers enter the terminal right up until they board the plane. But all of this is based on understanding who your new customers are—and how you can market to them.

Blog Post 1D

In the next post, I’ll discuss the third insight: how a new approach to sustainability can allow airports to profit from “going green.” I’ll also be introducing the airport urbanism (AU) model, and show how it can be used to productively engage with the challenges that airports will face in the coming decade.

How are these changes affecting your airport or airline? What kinds of strategies are you developing to address them? Share your ideas in the comments below, or write to me at hirsh@post.harvard.edu

Airport Urbanism book launched

I’m very excited to announce that Airport Urbanism has just been published by the University of Minnesota Press. Based on an unprecedented 10-year study of more than 50 airports worldwide, the book focuses on the rise of Asia in order to better understand the passenger trends and design innovations that are driving changes at airport hubs around the world.

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I will be sharing some of the book’s key insights in a series of upcoming blog posts. In the meantime, check out the book’s official page at the University of Minnesota Press. You can also order a copy on Amazon.