Retrofitting for the future: Airports think sustainably about existing infrastructure

When thinking about sustainability (both economic and environmental) aviation firms tend to look skywards first and groundward after. The initial emphasis tends to be on making flights cleaner and cheaper to operate, but ground operations and airport infrastructure are also key areas in the struggle to decarbonise the industry.

Infrastructure retrofitting methods gaining ground in 2022

Renewable Energy modifications: Utilising existing infrastructure to switch from hydrocarbon-based power sources to clean energy is a rapidly accelerating trend. The most visible example of this is the growing number of major airports covering their rooftops with solar panels. The wind is another viable option, though at a much smaller (shorter) scale, since tall wind turbines and oncoming planes don’t mix! Biomass and hydrogen are also emerging considerations in the renewable energy mix for airports.

Public access modifications: Though tangential, the emissions caused by airline passengers getting to and from the airport are a significant pollution factor. In 2018, a full third of emissions generated at London Heathrow Airport were caused in this way. Airports need to rethink – and often restructure – their road and rail access pathways that allow passengers quick, easy access to the main terminals, ideally via public transport.

Circular economy with built assets: Achieving a 360-degree lifecycle of airport infrastructure means designing and constructing buildings and spaces that are geared to reuse materials and minimise waste at every stage of operations. The optimal approach will look different for each airport, but the design mindset must remain open to the use of sustainable construction materials and practices that support recycling/waste reduction wherever possible.

Incorporating biodiversity: Destruction of the natural world has typically been seen as a necessary sacrifice for the creation of suitable airport spaces. This trend is reversing, as airports look to work with nature wherever possible, rather than riding roughshod over it. This means incorporating suitable trees, plant life, water sources and other natural terrain features into the operational environment. Typically, we’re seeing more airport ‘green roofs’ coming into play, as well as extensive planting efforts around the edges of established airport zones. Impressive examples of this include Frankfurt airport’s 40,000 square metre green roof which sequesters carbon, cools the airport and reduces noise pollution within the main terminals.

Electrification of vehicles: While not technically infrastructure, vehicles are a crucial element of ground operations, especially when considering carbon emissions and overall sustainability. Electrification of ground vehicles is an essential step in decarbonising airports while driving efficiency gains. Saudi Airport Exhibition exhibitor Swissport recently celebrated its inauguration of a new 8,000 square metre air cargo centre near Vienna Airport. The two facilities are linked via dedicated electric truck

Industry exemplar – Cochin International Airport Ltd (CIAL)
India’s CIAL is one an example of what can be achieved with existing airport spaces with the right attitude, mindset and resources.
Firstly, the airport’s leadership claim that 100% of the energy it uses comes from renewable sources, primarily drawn from a sizeable 50MWp solar array spread across key buildings and surrounding parcels of airport-owned land. This offsets 1,60,000 metric tons of carbon emissions per year.

CIAL has also given thought to combining food security with biodiversity. As well as powering the airport, the solar energy produced here also supports 20 acres of agri-voltaic farming, making it the biggest farm of its kind in India. The water bodies of the airport’s golf club have become fish farming sites in cooperation with the Marine Products Export Development Agency (MPEDA).

These milestones are only the beginning of CIAL’s long-term vision for creating a wholly sustainable, net-zero airport that not only serves its primary purpose of managing flights but also provides a centre for renewable energy production, sustainable agriculture and aquaculture, and numerous other sustainability efforts.