The Future of Airports: Sustainability and Airport-Citizens (Topic No. 10)

12 August 2020 Airport of the Future
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The Airport Think Tank of ENAC Alumni published last month the global analysis of The Future of Airports. Each week, discover a new focus on one of the 11 topics of this research initiative.

Like any human activity, air transportation has negative externalities.  Aircraft noise has been the first airport-related issue to be recognized as so. Programs and activities aiming at reducing the number of people affected by noise have had significant effects since the 1970s in several countries. However, according to ICAO, the footprint of the 55 dB DNL noise contour from 315 commercial service airports representing 80% of the global traffic could double if no progress is made on aircraft technology. The 2015 footprint represents 14,400 km2 and 30 million people. Advanced but achievable technological improvement could stabilize this accrued noise exposure to its 2015 level and even reduce it. While the aircraft and engine design industries are working on such improvements, airports and governments also have a strong role to play for reducing this footprint, enhancing the insulation of the most exposed homes, and lowering the number of residents within this contour on the long-term. ICAO's standards and recommended practices (SARPs) on aircraft noise at airports include the framework for aircraft type noise certification. It also includes the guidance developed through the “Balanced  Approach to aircraft noise management” (Doc 9829). This Balanced Approach analysis is specific to each airport geography, traffic, and conditions and a social and economic analysis must be undertaken for each measure envisaged. Aerial pollution (e.g. NOx and particles) and greenhouse emissions (e.g., carbon dioxide) are the main types of gaseous externalities of an airport. Airports shall have a holistic vision of these emissions when preparing a sustainable plan. They should include the emissions of aircraft, ground handling services, passenger terminals and support facilities, landside facilities, but also ground transportation from and to the airport for passengers and airport workers, and emissions of their supply chain as well.

Aviation is essential to our modern, globalized economy. Aviation supports most of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), developed by the United Nations in 2015. A comprehensive study was developed by the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) in 2017. Airports make a massive contribution to the economic welfare of regions. They are centers of direct and indirect employment: personnel employed by airport operators directly and by other entities at the airport represent more than 6.1 million jobs globally. Airports trigger large investments for maintaining and developing their infrastructure that lead to further local jobs. It enables a broad range of opportunities and widens the horizon of possibilities, attracting businesses, residents and tourists. Airports create high speed mobility options between cities, regions, and countries offering direct connections to the world for manufacturers and investors. Aviation does not benefit to large corporations only. It creates new opportunities for small local producers. Tourism has been a powerful economic contributor and development driver for many regions and countries all over the world. More than half of the international tourists travel by air. In 2001, 72% of tourists visiting Costa Rica arrived by plane. While the country has pledged to shutdown mineral extraction, stop deforestation, and focus on more sustainable resources such as responsible tourism, air transportation is a necessity to achieve these goals. Airports provide mobility to remote or scarcely populated areas. Humanitarian aid and search and rescue missions need aviation facilities to support their operations as well. In remote areas and across vast territories, connectivity provided by air transport can be more sustainable than if ground infrastructure were built. For many insular countries and overseas territories, air transportation is the only means to connect to the world and to move passengers and goods from island to island in a timely manner.

The impact of airports – and aviation as a whole – on climate change have been taken into consideration for decades. Aviation accounts for about 2% of the worldwide CO2 emissions, a constant share since the early 1990s, even if the absolute emissions regularly increase due to the growing demand for air travel. Although CO2 is the only greenhouse gas (GHG) significantly emitted by aviation, other pollutants (NOx, fine particulates, etc.) are also emitted. Part of these emissions occur at high altitudes, which might increase its net impact according to models. However, there is still an uncertainty on the exact direct contribution of aviation to climate change due to the complexity of its chemistry. For instance, aviation NOx contribute to ozone generation (increasing the greenhouse effect) under certain conditions, and to methane depletion at other altitudes (reducing this same effect). Also, the impact of contrails and their ability to generate cirrus clouds have to be taken into consideration. The Airport Carbon Accreditation program of Airports Council International (ACI) is a global carbon management initiative that specifically targets airport emissions. The program has been endorsed by the ICAO since 2011. The initiative provides a framework for airports to reduce their carbon footprint through local green initiatives as well as carbon offsetting in an objective to carbon neutrality. Several airports have already achieved the highest certification Level 4 – which implies carbon neutrality. The Airport Carbon Accreditation and carbon offset as a way to reduce the footprint of individual airports should not be underestimated – as should not be ICAO’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). At the same time, it is just a first step toward greener airports. Comprehensive decarbonization of airports will require the reduction and, as far as practicable, the elimination of emissions at the source.


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