Earth Day 2015: Long-term Sustainability of the Airport Industry in the Face of Climate Change


As today is Earth Day, it is important to celebrate our industry’s successes and recognize our future challenges, particularly with respect to climate change.  As the risk of climate change impacts on the airport industry continues to increase, the use of mitigation and adaptation policies are growing more and more important. Airports close to the coast or to bodies of water are at risk of rising tides and flooding from extreme (and not so extreme) storm events. Airports located in drier climates may experience water shortages from droughts. Migrating wildlife due to altered habitats may also affect operations. Tourism may also be impacted and could decline in certain areas, as our climate continues to change. Although climate change poses complex challenges, the work that both the airport industry and governments are doing to pave a sustainable future is incredibly promising.

Preparing for and adapting to climate change is a critical element of long term sustainability for any industry, but particularly for airports because of the extensive, expensive and difficult to replace or relocate infrastructure. To assist airports in their endeavors, there are also a number of airport-related climate change research projects and reports, including: ACRP Report 02-40: Climate Change Risk Assessment and Adaptation Planning, and an ongoing sea level rise study at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

 The ACRP Report 02-40 is being led by Dewberry along with Gresham Smith and Partners. The team is developing a comprehensive tool and guidebook for airports to evaluate asset vulnerability. The tool that is partnered with the report, entitled the Airport Climate Risk Operational Screening (ACROS) tool, evaluates an airport’s infrastructure based on the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s predicted climate trends for 2030 and 2060. The main variables measured were: the number of hot days over 90 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit, humid and dry days, wet days and very wet days, and freezing and frost days.

Using the climate information, the tool gives airports a way to evaluate their assets (e.g. airfield, general aviation facilities), and service and operations (e.g. wildlife management). The airport identifies an asset, defines its criticality (e.g. how essential is this asset to the airport and its operations), determines vulnerability (e.g. how vulnerable is a terminal facility to flooding), and then the tool calculates a numerical assessment for the asset. The tool includes specific information on most airports in the United States, therefore, an airport can get a custom result out of the tool. The tool gives a qualitative risk score at the end for quick comparisons (red is high risk, yellow is medium risk, and blue is low risk).

The tool is an introduction to climate adaptation for planners and engineers and risk managers. It will help facilitate a discussion with key airport management and professionals. If an airport plans to build a new runway, this tool will help assess the potential risks from climate change impacts during its lifespan. The ACRP report also includes a guidebook and step-by-step instructions for the tool. The project is expected to be published later this year.

In addition to this ACRP project, individual airports are also undertaking their own assessments.  Nate Kimball, Environment and Sustainability Specialist at The Port Authority at New York & New Jersey, is helping conduct a sea level rise study at The Port Authority’s several airports. The project is currently evaluating hazards at Teterboro Airport, LaGuardia Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, and Newark Liberty International Airport. The report is based on a year-2050 timeframe. The Port Authority may elevate assets or increase asset protection based on the study’s findings.

These studies evidence the industry’s work towards climate adaptation; however there is an equal focus on climate mitigation within the industry. In March’s Sustainability Working Group newsletter, I highlighted Stephanie Meyn and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s work on electrifying the airport’s ground service equipment. As of now, Alaska Airlines has electrified all of its equipment; however, Ms. Meyn is working on getting the other airlines on board. 

SEA-TAC is also an early adopter of the Airport Carbon Accreditation Program, which was adopted by ACI-NA this past fall. This program was designed by the airport industry to recognize airports that proactively manage their carbon emissions and encourage emissions reductions with an ultimate goal of carbon neutrality. First launched by ACI-Europe, the program is now available to airports globally. Since the fall of 2014, several other ACI-NA airports including Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, Port of Portland airports, and Victoria International Airport, have achieved accreditation under the program. Projects like these serve to pave a sustainable path forward for the airport industry, as it reduces our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while reducing overall costs. Along with recent reports and actions taken industry-wide and at specific airports, the overall airport community is focused on tackling the problems of climate change.

 Recently, the U.S. Department of Transportation hosted a Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Workshop. It featured federal, state, and local government experts, independent scientists, academia, as well as industry executives in a wide range of fields, including environmental policy, sustainability, development, engineering, and research. Panelists across the country described the unique ways in which the transportation sector is both adapting to the effects of climate change and reducing its carbon footprint. Several of the presentations related to the aviation industry focused on the use of biofuels, increasingly energy-efficient engines and technology, and changes in flight patterns and take-off and landing procedures through NextGen and Performance Based Navigation – all of which contribute to industry efforts to manage our GHG emissions growth. 

Earth Day 2015 will officially mark the 45th year the day has been celebrated. ACI-NA is proud to have been around to the see the changes the airport industry has gone through during this period. Now more than ever, airports understand the importance of sustainability and stewardship of the environment. In response to the challenges climate change poses now and in the near future, the industry is focusing its resources on research and implementation of climate mitigation and adaptation practices. ACI-NA and our member airports look forward to another 45 years of celebrating Earth Day and continuing to make strides in managing our environmental footprint and preparing for the challenges that lay ahead. 


Written by Nate Chumley, ACI-NA, Environmental Affairs