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02 Apr, 2020 Insights

Is sustainable air travel (really) an illusion?

With global aviation being responsible for 2% of the global man-made CO2 and with the number of air passengers expected to double in the next 20 years, it’s clear that creating a sustainable future must become a shared responsibility.

Architects, engineers and scientists are coming up with innovative ideas to create green airport buildings, electrical aircrafts and sustainable aviation fuel to reduce aviation`s contributions to climate change. Following last month’s roundtable discussion hosted at The Building Society we invited AECOM Consultant Kitti Zsobrak to share her insights on how can transport planners help to create a world of ‘sustainable air travel’.

Sustainable air travel starts on the ground

One of the main sources of airport-related emissions is passenger and freight journeys to and from the airport. Good surface access to airports is crucial because it means that passengers, visitors, employees and airfreight travel can get to and from the airport with a choice of safe, reliable, comfortable, efficient, affordable and sustainable options.

Airports are significant generators of surface access journeys having direct impact on ‘human health and wellbeing, traffic delays and congestion, energy use, noise, vibration, user safety and local air quality’ (Budd, 2016). More so, surface access emissions are one of the primary sources of emissions that airports can influence. In order to progress our ambitions towards carbon neutrality it is essential to understand that sustainable air travel starts on the ground. Therefore, we need a more holistic approach, starting with changes to the way people and good access airports.

The case for better infrastructure 

Most airports operate 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, creating different travel patterns for all consumers from most typical commuter and leisure journeys, therefore posing greater challenges for public transport operators. In addition, the privatised ground transport of the UK, financial and economic issues, the geographical location of airports, the seasonal nature of demand and user acceptance can become a major challenge for increasing public transport services.

The enforcement of dedicated bus and high occupancy vehicle lanes could help to improve journey time and reliability for consumers. Road-based public transportation such as coach services can provide connections for locations further afield and these can be introduced relatively quickly.

Examples show that dedicated services such as The Heathrow Express can offer fast and direct connections and could also benefit from being designed with a greater focus on passengers. Equally, 24-hour operation of some public transport services can contribute to increasing the number of trips made at anti-social hours.

Using innovation to unlock solutions 

A range of technological innovation options are available around the world such as telepresence, remote check-in and systems and software developments which could have a major role in reducing carbon emission generated journeys.

Around the world, Airport Cities are starting to represent viable solutions to ensuring maximal access to airports and to local businesses. This new urban form brings airport, urban, regional and business-site planning domains together to develop an environmentally sustainable place.

Make public transport an attractive alternative

Challenges in changing behaviours in accessing airports range from local authority budged constraints, privatised ground transportation, travel planning and operation of the airport.

Commercial and personal decisions and other factors such as time, accessibility, affordability, comfort, personal safety, convenience and reliability play a part when choosing the method of accessing airports. Thus, informing, engaging and increasing consumer’s awareness of environmental issues whilst offering suitable options is essential to increasing public transport usage.

While airports are keen to embrace measures such as improvement of infrastructure, public transport services, marketing and discounted fares it is essential to also adopt less popular, charging-based strategies such as increased staff parking fares, charging for drop-off/pick-up trips and charging road users to reduce congestions on the local highway network.

When it comes to airport staff, travelcards offers are an attractive incentive for employees, offering significant savings on various public transport fares.

If others can, so can you

There’s strong evidence to suggest that airports can lower their emissions significantly by changing the travel behaviour of staff, passengers and visitors.

Geneva Airport developed to be the centre of a cycle and pedestrian network which helped to achieve a 12% reduction in private vehicle mode share in 2017. Stockholm Arlanda Airport opened the world’s first electrified road in 2017 which helped cutting fossil emissions by 80 to 90%.

The Heathrow Express has saved 204 million kg of CO2 emissions since launch while Oslo Airport achieved a public transport share of 68%, the highest in all Europe through its dedicated rail service offer. Furthermore, UK research indicate that car club vehicles emit over 33% fewer CO2 emissions/km than an average UK car.

In summary

Policies aiming to encourage public transport use are more likely to be successful when they are targeted at groups of airport users, using segmentation based on individual’s needs, preferences and psychological attitudes or motivations regarding surface access travel. This will enable airport managers to predict how different users of the airport will respond to policy interventions. Where Surface access works well, it can have significant positive impacts, both economically and environmentally.