Recovering Sustainably: Why and How Airports Can Initiate, Maintain, or Enhance Their Sustainability Commitments

Jennifer Desharnais by Jennifer Desharnais | Sep 30, 2021

By Jennifer Desharnais, Manager, Sustainability, ACI World

It is difficult to start any communication without stating the obvious, and what has already been written in hundreds of articles: COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on all our lives, and particularly on the aviation industry. Although the pandemic remains a reality, we are now able to talk about recovery – perhaps an uneven, intermittent recovery – but a recovery, nonetheless. 

I am passionate about travel – I am always planning my next trip – and I have spent my entire career in the industry, so, I admit having great personal interest in the recovery of aviation. I cannot wait to set foot in an airport again; to admire these fascinating, highly complex miniature cities. I yearn to lose myself in the streets of an unknown destination or visit favorite spots in a familiar place; to just enjoy being and feeling grateful for having this unbelievable opportunity to experience travel. I long to marvel at the foreign sounds while travelling on the public transit, and that feeling of being outside of my comfort zone. I anticipate the smells of unfamiliar foods, the subtle difference in the light, an energy different to the one I am used to. But most of all, I wish to reconnect with others, may they be friends whom I have not seen in a long time, or new people that will teach me different ways of life. 

Why sustainability makes social, environmental, and economic sense

Aviation is invaluable for our planet’s socioeconomic development, and airports are in a unique position to support sustainable development. They help connect the world globally, yet they are very much a part of a city, or a whole region. They contribute to the enrichment of people’s lives both locally and worldwide. However, they must also be mindful of our planet and the need to reduce our collective footprint. Airports have the dual obligations of maximizing the socioeconomic positives while minimizing the environmental negatives. They, just like the rest of our human endeavors, must grow and recover sustainably, and look at every facet of their operations, to ensure they are creating added value from a social, environmental, and economic standpoint.

Indeed, the three pillars of sustainability should be held at the forefront of all activities, as airports navigate their journey to recovery. From a social point of view, it is simply the right thing to do: businesses are responsible for taking care of their workforce and customers. Now more than ever, their wellbeing is paramount. By providing a safe, healthy, fair, environmentally friendly, and inclusive environment, as well as an efficient and positive customer experience, airports can retain public trust – a crucial element if they wish to prosper in years to come.

From an environmental standpoint, our industry, like all others, must play its part. Airports are increasingly in the spotlight when it comes to demonstrating the steps they are taking to protect the planet and its inhabitants. The pandemic will only increase this pressure, as the resumption of full operations approaches. On the positive side, decarbonizing and protecting natural resources makes good business sense. Integrating sustainability into operations and infrastructure will help airports increase their efficiency, reduce their risk of being severely impacted by climate change, and other risks, increasing their resiliency to the changing operational conditions they will inevitably face.

From an economic perspective, airports may never recuperate losses accumulated since the start of the crisis, but they do need to return to profitable operations. Alongside this challenge, they will also need new funds to address climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Sustainable airports of the future and Clean Skies for Tomorrow 2030

Airports of the future will certainly look different as new technologies emerge with alternative sources of energy such as green hydrogen and electricity, and sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). In this regard, ACI recently endorsed the World Economic Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow 2030 Ambition Statement, which brings together a coalition that will accelerate the supply and use of SAF technologies.

Airports will have to adapt the necessary infrastructure and operations to provide these new fuels to airlines. Investors are more and more interested in sustainability. Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) criteria are increasingly used by investors to evaluate performance and steer investments into companies that follow more sustainable practices and that incorporate climate goals into their mission statements, corporate values, and day-to-day operations. This means that airports with a clear sustainability strategy will be in a better position to access necessary capital, for instance via sustainability-linked bonds, and be in a better position to grow without compromising future generations.

Airports are already adapting their operations in response to the ongoing health crisis. This flexibility could be leveraged to rethink and reimagine their sustainable strategy: from employment conditions, recruitment practices, community engagement efforts, resource management, and operational procedures, all the way through to procurement processes, contract negotiations, construction, maintenance programs and more. The sustainable actions taken during the pandemic can inform and be integrated into the airport’s strategic recovery plan.

How can sustainable recovery be achieved?

A systemic approach to collaboration, resiliency, innovation, partnerships, and training will lead to success. Recently, I heard it said in a presentation that the planet did not care where the emissions came from – they still caused damage. It may sound obvious, but it is certainly true. One of the best ways for airports to achieve their sustainability goals is to work with their customers, stakeholders, governments, academia, and other industries. By joining forces, knowledge can be shared, where lessons learned and innovative solutions see the day. This systemic approach emphasizes the interdependency of all parties within the ecosystem, and how crucial it is to better understand and manage the risks and the impacts they have on one another, as well as the need to be more resilient. 

While innovation and new technologies are definite enablers of a sustainable recovery, it is also not always necessary to reinvent the wheel. Airports can look into what they are already doing in terms of sustainability through the lens of recovery and adapt as necessary.

Social sustainability

Airports must continue to ensure passenger health and safety, while providing a customer experience that addresses new needs and expectations. This goes beyond sanitizing and distancing measures put in place for the pandemic. As concessions start to reopen, it is a great opportunity, for instance, to review the food and beverage offering and make room for healthier options, or to think of new services to promote physical activity, and perhaps even create new local jobs in the process.

Placing employees at the center of the road to recovery is also vital, applying the same health, safety, and wellbeing measures that apply to passengers. But airports may need to go even further than this, by reshaping human resource policies to include more flexible and innovative working conditions and increase the level of engagement with employees. Creating a stronger sense of community with everyone working at the airport is a win-win and can inspire employees to become powerful ambassadors for the organization. It has been well-documented that a happy, safe, and valued workforce, is the most productive.

The value of developing strong relationships between airports and local communities should never be underestimated. Just like employees, a local community that stays involved and informed about developments and potential challenges ahead, can become a long-term ally, rather than an adversary. Sharing matters that affect the surrounding population, explaining the benefits the airport brings and discussing the implications of future developments are all ways to maintain, and even increase, the engagement with local stakeholders. Airports and their staff, can engage in local events, participate in employment fairs and take an active role in supporting local charities. They also have the opportunity to promote the culture, heritage, and natural resources of their region to the public.

Environmental sustainability

We know that operational efficiency can reduce emissions, save resources, and reduce costs. For example, the electrification of infrastructure, equipment, and operations combined with the increase in efficiency, can help decarbonization and improvement in air quality, but also develop a sustainable business model. Optimizing airside operations can lead to more efficient use of runways and taxiways, reducing emissions and creating cost savings, allowing for increased aircraft movements and the associated revenues, and enhancing connectivity to other domestic and international markets – in turn creating more social and economic benefits. This is the very idea of sustainability.

In parallel, airports can continue to focus on protecting resources, refining their waste, water and energy management programs, and look at new sustainable business models, such as servitization. They can explore possible alliances, synergies, and post-consumer programs to reuse and process waste and materials, working with stakeholders throughout the airport and beyond, to create a true circular economy.

As they renovate, remodel, or expand, airports could benefit from reviewing all the different green building certifications available and how these can align with or improve their sustainable strategy.

In the context of this pandemic, it is also wise to inform all stakeholders of the importance of safeguarding biodiversity. It should be widely publicized that this can help prevent the emergence of zoonotic diseases, which can help to avoid future pandemics.

Economic sustainability

At a local level, airports can provide jobs and stimulate the economy. As they recover and grow, airports might take the opportunity to review their sourcing policies to ensure support of a sustainable strategy. For example, by reaching out to ethnic minorities, women, differently abled people, and visible and invisible minorities, and providing them with a fair chance at operating at the airport. They can also consider only bringing in supply chain organizations that demonstrate sustainable practices. Giving preference to locally-owned businesses can strengthen ties with the community, stimulate the local economy, and reduce the carbon footprint associated with shipping from outside the area.

Airports can also reach out further into the ecosystem, to partner with tourism associations, destination management companies, chambers of commerce, etc., to promote and stimulate tourism at their destination. They can play a more active role in creating a safe, seamless, and positive experience for all travellers.

Airports should seek new stability and strength with their business partners. A well-balanced and innovative business model will look further than just cost when making financial decisions; it will also look at quantifying and monetizing social and environmental aspects. Airports can investigate tools and software that can assist them in understanding and calculating this triple bottom line.

As sustainability becomes the word on everybody’s lips, the availability of green finance will also increase. It would be a good time for airports to explore various options such as sustainability-linked bonds and loans, for specific projects and long-term investments, respectively. Social bonds could help improve the relationship with a certain community, while green bonds could support decarbonization efforts or upgrading infrastructure to increase the airport’s resilience.

ACI World Sustainable Recovery Best Practices and Case Studies

Simply said, incorporating sustainability into recovery will help airports achieve a well-balanced business model, that will strengthen their economic position, increase social benefits, and reduce negative environmental impacts. The Sustainable Recovery Best Practice and the Sustainable Recovery Case Studies recently published by ACI, can help airports implement sustainable recovery plans, and recognize the advantages of a sustainability-centric recovery strategy.

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Sustainable Recovery Best Practice and Case Studies
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It will also be very interesting to see the key takeaways from ACI’s upcoming LAC/World Annual General Assembly, Conference, and Exhibition, since this year’s event will be held under the theme “Reconnecting Aviation for A Sustainable Future.”

I am truly impressed at how much airports across the world have been doing to become more sustainable businesses before and during the pandemic. Despite massive revenue losses, they are persevering in their efforts towards sustainability. They are providing a safe and healthy environment for passengers, improving processes, enhancing efficiency measures, focusing on their workforce and the communities they serve, and working tirelessly to preserve resources. They are using collaboration, digitization, automation, and other innovative solutions – often thinking outside the box to drive forward initiatives that will help them achieve long-term sustainability.

Their work is by no means over, but I admire their commitment in helping to make this world a better place for us all.

Jennifer Desharnais

Jennifer Desharnais

Manager Sustainability
Jennifer joined ACI World in April 2019. Her role focuses on managing the ACI World Environment Standing Committee (WEnSC), acting as the advisor for ACI Observer to the ICAO Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP), and continuously developing technical expertise on environmental matters. She brings with her over 18 years of combined experience in the tourism industry, including hospitality, events, tour operators, and aviation. She holds an Executive MSc in Air Transport Management from Cranfield University in Bedfordshire.
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