Op-Ed: Incorporating Sustainability in Airport Planning

Airports are a critical part of the U.S. transportation infrastructure as they play a key role in the economy and in connecting passengers and freight between surface and air transportation modes. However, airports can have negative impacts on the environment and communities around which they operate, including to emission of greenhouse gases (GHG). The sustainable development of airports is essential to the sustainability of the entire transportation system.

Led by global and local industry stakeholders such as International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Federal Aviation Administration, Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA) and others, many airports have incorporated sustainability practices in airport projects. ACI-NA defines airport sustainability as “a holistic approach to managing an airport so as to ensure the integrity of the Economic viability, Operational efficiency, Natural Resource Conservation and Social responsibility (EONS) of the airport.” Importantly, ACI-NA’s definition of airport sustainability explicitly includes operational efficiency in addition to the three dimensions of the triple bottom line. A clear definition of airport sustainability bolsters identification and setting of sustainability goals and identification of sustainability key performance indicators (KPIs) and sustainability metrics.

Airport Sustainability Assessment: Rating Systems, Indicators, KPIs, and Metrics

Table 1

Sustainability Rating System Examples of Sustainability  Indicators, KPIs, and Metrics Dimension of TBL
LEED™ (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)
  • Energy use per sq. ft.
  • Electricity usage in kWh per sq. ft.
  • Environmental, economic, and operational sustainability
Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Reporting Guidelines
(Superseded by GRI Standards)
  • Revenue generated annually
  • Economic sustainability
The GRI Airport Sector Supplement (Latest updates pending)
  • Human trafficking awareness training
  • Social sustainability
ISO 26000:2010 Guidance of Social Responsibility
  • Quality of workplace environment
  • Social sustainability
Envision™ Infrastructure Sustainability Rating System
  • Adherence to safety standards
  • Social sustainability
The CDP (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project)
  • CO2 emissions in kg per year
  • Environmental sustainability
Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA)  – ACI-International
  • Percentage GHG emissions reduction per passenger
  • Environmental sustainability

As seen from examples on the Table 1, most environmental and economic KPIs and metrics are easily quantifiable. Because of this, current airport sustainability efforts have focused on environmental and economic sustainability because of the ease of use of numbers to quantify their impact on airport operations and communities. However, indicators of social sustainability are qualitative in nature and can be harder to quantify. Nevertheless, social sustainability indicators are an important component of a holistic approach and should not be omitted.

  • To conduct a cost and benefits analysis and determining which sustainability projects have net positive benefits.
  • To identify and select projects that are most suited to the specific airport development needs, goals, objectives, and available resources.
  • To save airport monetary and human resources because airport decision makers are able to determine beforehand which projects have the highest returns for an airport.
  • To improve short-term, medium-term and long-term airport planning processes.
  • To ensure that all three elements of sustainability are included when planning projects.

For example, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport uses GRI Standards for reporting and incorporates aspects of the ACI-NA’s EONS definition of airport sustainability. Salt Lake City International Airport is working toward Level 3 ACA and uses a visual dashboard to highlight sustainability practices at the airport. Although initial investment in sustainable airport projects may be relatively higher and may require a certain level of expertise that many airports may not have, a study in the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) showed that sustainable airport projects present higher benefits in the long-term compared to traditional airport projects. Perhaps due to lack of sufficient data on adoption of airport sustainability, there is less adoption of sustainability in smaller and medium-sized airports.

Recommendations on Incorporating and Assessing Sustainability in Airports

The social sustainability dimension that relates to ‘people’ and community aspect in airport projects are under researched. Going forward, airport planners should take a holistic approach that takes into consideration the three dimensions of airport sustainability—economic, environmental, and social—and include the upfront and long-term operations of the asset in consideration. Researchers need to develop more quantitative and qualitative ways to incorporate sustainability indicators that have the potential to impact airport operations and communities.

For small and medium-sized airports which operate on smaller budgets, the lack of financial and human resources capital is among the challenges that inhibit adoption of sustainability planning approaches. Through the FAA Airport Improvement Program (AIP), eligible airports included in the NPIAS report can apply for grants “…for most airfield capital improvements or rehabilitation projects and in some specific situations, for terminals, hangars, and nonaviation development.” Given the importance of inclusion of sustainability in airport planning, FAA should consider setting aside funding specifically to facilitate airport sustainability projects in airports of all sizes.

Although some sustainability projects require financial capital, there are projects that airports can adopt that require minimal financial investment. Many of these are categorized under the social sustainability dimension. Examples include community engagement, education, and outreach programs, as well as the advancement of social equity and diversity in airports. In addition to the benefits these projects bring to the airports, social sustainability projects can be used by the FAA to incentivize adoption of sustainability in airports and as a criterion for allocation of the AIP discretionary funds for larger projects.

While incorporating sustainability in the initial step towards sustainable airports development, investing in the right sustainability projects is key to the long-term sustainability of an airport. Currently there is no standardized sustainability assessment framework for airports. Using the current airport sustainability data from airports across the U.S., airport stakeholders including FAA, ACI-NA, ACRP and others should collaborate in the development of a standardized framework for assessing sustainability projects in airports.

Data and experience sharing among airports is another way of encouraging airports to adopt and monitor sustainability practices. Several airports across the U.S. have adopted sustainability planning, whether as ad hoc projects or as part of the master planning process. However, many more are reluctant to venture into an unfamiliar area. FAA grants should provide financial support to develop a platform for data sharing between airports like the Sustainable Aviation Guidance Alliance interactive website which was developed by volunteers from aviation interest groups.

Airport operations have an impact on the environment and society, and while there are initiatives to mitigate the impacts of airports, more action is needed. To start, airports need to define sustainability and align their definition to the short, medium, and long-term airport plans. Then, the industry needs to identify sustainability indicators, KPIs, and metrics when incorporating sustainability in airports. In addition, airport planners should pay close attention to social sustainability indicators that are not easily quantifiable but have significant impact on airports. Finally, there is need for action from various stakeholders, including increasing funding to support sustainability projects in airports, development of a sustainability assessment framework, and facilitating data-sharing to increase adoption of sustainability in airports of all sizes.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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