After the paralysing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and slow road to recovery ever since, the number of passengers flying between destinations is finally starting to bounce back and so is the number of flights all around the globe. This puts rapidly growing pressure on hubs that connect everything together, but as airports reach capacities, they have a chance to introduce more sustainable practices.

An airport is not just a building – it’s a complex consisting of parking spaces, transit systems, often numerous terminals and all of those aspects require careful consideration when it comes to development, building and day to day operations.

people planet profit

The People, Planet, Profit Conundrum

This required synergy between all elements hangs in the balance of the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. For a while now the “planet” P has been consistently neglected in favour of the “profit” P. Until, with the rise of social activism, various sustainability movements and growing consumer demand for sustainable solutions, it can be neglected no more.

The objective is clear: the aviation industry (including airports) is required to cut 50% of its net carbon emissions by 2050, compared with 2005 levels.

The main focus has been placed on emissions and the “net zero” goal many airports claim they have, and many more aim to achieve in the near future. Meaning operational efficiencies, investing in public transport links to reduce traffic and other decarbonisation activities. Promises filled with buzzwords to appease the social activists who are heavily criticising not just by the airports but the entire aviation industry.

Sustainability though requires a holistic approach – from the location and the way the complex is built, to how it’s furnished and ran. No detail is too small and although it’s a Herculean task, it’s one that needs undertaking. Yes, airports are, like all other businesses, required to make profit to keep growing and operating but with the increased popularity of sustainability movements, businesses (including airports) are now waking up to the fact that they are also here to serve people without damaging the planet.

airport sustainability

Gatwick’s Decade of Change

Let’s take Gatwick Airport as an example with their Decade of Change initiative based on 10 objectives and 10 years to achieve them (from 2010 to 2020).

Amongst those ten objectives were ones relating to reduction in waste generation, water usage and carbon emissions. Gatwick proudly boast that those objectives have now been met and have already set a new set of goals to be met within the next decade.

For example, their 2030 zero waste goal is to “ensure that by 2030 all materials used at Gatwick in operations, commercial activity and construction are repurposed for beneficial use…”.

But what about sourcing materials that already come from recycled sources?

In looking at our impact on the environment we must remember that everything is part of one or another chain reaction. Meaning the materials we may be starting with on a project i.e. the building blocks of the seat, the foam, the upholstery already carry an environmental footprint. So if we’re putting those elements together to create a brand new seat, we are linking the environmental impact of all raw elements together and add to it.

This is called lifecycle analysis.

denver airport sustainable leather

No Detail too Small to Make an Impact

Consider Denver Airport who invested in recycled materials for gate seating during their on-going expansion project as a good example of using materials with reduced environmental impact . Similarly, Memphis Airport invested in over 3,000 gate seats upholstered in materials made from recycled leather while Los Angeles International Airport unveiled the new “Bradley West Gates” with the aim to enhance passenger journey and creating a unique “community-like” experience with the use of stylish, flexible and re-configurable furniture, again upholstered in sustainable, durable and easy to maintain materials (read more about the project here).

A sustainability first-approach doesn’t have to come at the cost of a creative design. Many airports aim to differentiate themselves by offering comfortable and individualised seating solutions across their lounges and gate seating areas. Seemingly small decisions such as choice of the construction or upholstery material to a sustainable alternative can have an enormous and positive impact on overall sustainability (hundreds, if not thousands of seats per airport) and consumer affinity, and yet those aspects are rarely ever considered or implemented.

Schiphol Airport recycled leather

The Sustainable Exhibition 

Royal Schiphol Group have been on the mission to “continue to fly and discover the world, but in a responsible, sustainable way” for many years. Their initiatives span anything from sustainable construction and electric vehicles used throughout the airport and surrounding network, to using wind and solar energy right down to circular production of lighting and information boards and ELeather upholstery for indoor furniture as well as outdoor furniture made out of flax and elephant grass.

Schiphol Airport takes repurposing and sustainability to a whole new level in a recent example of the corridor M connecting to the pier and boarding area. The corridor itself received a makeover which has been a great showcase of upcycling.  The airport used chairs sourced from other areas and refreshed them with new, sustainable ELeather upholstery. Planters were made from spare airplane parts of an old Boeing airplane and decorative windmills were made from old information desks. Using what was already produced and on-hand Schiphol have turned “just another airport corridor” into an exhibition where their passengers can learn about the airport’s variety of eco-initiatives.

So how can me make our airports more sustainable? Making changes retrospectively is more difficult and costly, therefore any new initiatives from lighting, to temperature control, waste management, refurbishments, introducing new technologies all the way to building brand new buildings and facilities should be considered with sustainability in mind. And while cost is always a factor, one way to look at it is that we are here for the planet, people and profit – in that order.