Virginia's flight plan to a greener aviation industry

Virginia's flight plan to a greener aviation industry

Virginia is embarking on a 66-airport-strong sustainability initiative — the biggest pilot project of its kind in the United States.

Airports face many of the same sustainability challenges as other facilities with a large employee base and a steady stream of visitors, such as retail centers or sports arenas: high energy and water use, lots of waste to dispose of and varying socio-economic impacts for employees and neighboring communities.

Yet airports also face some unique considerations: the potential for major water quality challenges, such as pollution from aircraft deicing; substantial noise generation, which comes with implications for both ecological and land use compatibility; and emissions that may affect local air quality.

As essential economic hubs and flagship facilities in their communities, many airports are looking for new on-the-ground opportunities to help overcome these challenges. At the same time, the aviation sector more broadly is making efforts to become more efficient, from aircraft design to changes in routing to the use of aviation biofuels and large-scale carbon offsets.

“Opportunities abound to reduce the cost of operations, to generate new revenue streams and reduce the environmental footprint at airports across the country,” said Peter Trick, an executive vice president with consulting firm Cadmus.

In early 2015, Cadmus was enlisted to help the Virginia Department of Aviation implement a first-of-its-kind initiative to create a sustainability plan that will serve all of the Commonwealth’s 66 public-use airports.

Funded primarily by the Federal Aviation Administration, the project will create the first statewide airport sustainability management plan in the United States to include all types and sizes of public-access airports.

The plan will accommodate a range of facilities, from large airports with many hundreds of commercial flights daily to small, general aviation and local service airports with turf runways.

“We are excited at the opportunity to address sustainability across all airports in our state system,” said Randy Burdette, executive director of the Virginia Department of Aviation. “This pilot program will be the first of its kind and will address key policy issues and provide valuable guidance to any of our 66 public use airports.”

Forward momentum

Sustainability guidance for individual airports already does exist: the Sustainable Aviation Guidance Alliance (SAGA) has compiled an initial online database of airport sustainability best practices; the Chicago Department of Aviation published a Sustainable Airport Manual with guidance relevant beyond its own facilities; and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) released a Sector Supplement for airport sustainability reporting in June 2011.

The Airport Cooperative Research Program, an applied-research initiative of the Transportation Research Board (part of the National Academy of Sciences), also has funded a number of studies pertaining to airport sustainability.

In 2008, several major airport industry trade groups, including the Airports Council International-North America, the Airport Consultants Council, the American Association of Airport Executives and the Air Transport Association, came together to form SAGA — a volunteer coalition of aviation interests with the goal of assisting airport operators of all sizes in planning, implementing and maintaining sustainability programs.

In 2010, the FAA launched its Sustainable Master Plan Pilot Program, funding sustainability master plans or sustainability management plans at more than 40 airports across the country with a goal “to make sustainability a core objective in airport planning.”

Context is key

But are aviation sustainability programs yet more examples of well-intentioned, but potentially restrictive, federal regulations? Far from it.

The FAA pilot program and the newly launched Virginia effort are voluntary programs, intended to provide airport operators with tools and resources to help them operate more efficiently, reduce costs, lower environmental impacts and, appealingly, compliance risk.

The Virginia sustainability management plan is a particularly novel approach due to the scope of airports that will be covered by the plan, given the resource constraints for smaller airports. It's an approach that depends heavily on harnessing stakeholder engagement to ensure program development is informed and applicable to the parties who ultimately will be entrusted with putting it into practice.

“Our experience has shown that, the more the guidance and support is based on feedback from airport practitioners, the more easily and enthusiastically they will act to implement environmentally and economically sustainable practices,” said Jeff Breeden, airport planner and project manager with the FAA Washington Airports District Office. “Practitioner buy-in is priceless.”

Early in the project, the Virginia Department of Aviation and the Cadmus team of consultants will convene a statewide steering council of Virginia airport operators, state agencies and the FAA. Together, they’ll develop a sustainability vision for the Virginia public use airport system, which will help frame the rest of the project.

Cadmus’ technical experts will provide input on issues as specific as construction materials and as broad as resiliency strategy, and help to identify relevant impact categories across a range of possible sustainability-related issues. Within each category, the project will establish goals, meaningful metrics and specific initiatives that can be undertaken by airports to improve performance.

While some issues incorporated into the planning process will be universal, the goal is a project expressly tailored to the Virginia context — not just in the sustainability measures themselves, but in the accompanying approach to communications and outreach.

The plan aims to address every aspect of sustainability’s triple bottom line — social, environmental and economic.

It will provide tools to help airport operators calculate the financial benefit of particular initiatives; develop guidance to help diversify and future-proof revenue streams (for example, through onsite renewable energy generation); identify potential funding sources for green initiatives; and help airports articulate their economic value to surrounding communities.

These resources will make the guidance immediately useful to airport operators, and will help airports continue operation into the future as positive economic and social actors — not to mention better environmental stewards. 

Still, the range of institutional capacity across the airports in the state presents a challenge in developing a system-wide sustainability management plan. Guidance on environmental management that would be overly simplistic to technical staff at a large commercial service airport could overwhelm the few staff of a small local service airport.

To meet the range of needs across the airports, the Cadmus team plans to create a series of supplements, tailored to airports of different types and sizes, to accompany the overall framework for the airport system as a whole. The goal for these supplements is to gather — or produce, if necessary — relevant sets of user-friendly tools, calculators and templates to capture low-hanging fruit and build momentum toward more ambitious goals.

A major focus of the Virginia effort will be to produce guidance to help the Commonwealth’s airport operators narrow down these options, cut through uncertainty and identify the most relevant and high-impact focus areas for their scale of facility.

With a practical, user-friendly sustainability framework, this groundbreaking sustainability initiative should really take off.