Airports strive to become more sustainable

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By Ariel Graham

Several airports shared their sustainability successes at the 2017 Airports Going Green Conference, hosted at the Hilton Anatole Hotel from Sunday, Nov. 12. to Wednesday, Nov. 15.

More than 300 aviation executives, professionals, and sustainability experts from around the world attended the four-day event, presented by the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE). Airports Going Green brings these industry experts together to discuss the latest trends, advancements, and challenges in creating sustainable, environmentally-friendly airports by focusing on four major areas of impact concerning sustainability: global, social, infrastructure, and technology, with keynote speakers for each topic, and various panels covering a wide array of topics from carbon neutrality to climate change. The conference first started 10 years ago in conjunction with the City of Chicago’s Department of Aviation. This is the first time the conference has been held domestically outside of Chicago.

Janet Bennett, director of outreach and communication with AAAE, said the conference is designed to not only give attendees realistic ideas they can take back to their airports, but also give them the motivation to take action.

“It’s our hope [the attendees] walk away with the feeling there are scalable ideas they can implement, and the courage to keep the movement going,” Bennett said. “This morning, one of the founders of the conference talked about a lot of the pushback they’re going to get. It’s a change, so having courage to stand strong and have that conversation with the powers that be and giving them the tools they need to go back to their airports and communicate the importance of all these sustainability efforts, that’s the big takeaway.”

The Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport was the host airport for this year’s conference, and has been making great strides of its own in going green. Last year, DFW Airport became the first airport in North America to achieve Carbon Neutral status, which means the airport either absorbs or offsets the same amount of carbon dioxide it produces. DFW Airport is one of only 23 airports in the world to have achieved this status.

Robert Horton, vice-president of Environmental Affairs department and sustainability officer for DFW Airport, explained this distinction is part of what led DFW to host this year’s conference, as they wanted others to learn from their success.

“Over the past few years, we’ve made some significant achievements in terms of progress toward sustainable growth,” Horton said. “When we became carbon neutral, I think it started the idea we want to make sure we can inspire others to take action as well. We followed the example of [Amsterdam Airport] Schiphol when they hosted last year, and we thought a lot of the solutions we’re developing in our shop, we would have the opportunity to share that insight with others.”

But DFW Airport is not stopping at complete carbon neutrality. Horton said the airport is looking at a number of new sustainability technologies and techniques to reduce their footprint even further.

“One of the new features we’re exploring, in terms of leveraging technology is dynamic glass,” Horton said. “Dynamic glass is regular glass that has an electro-chromic metal film on the outside. It’s used primarily to reduce the heat load, reduce glare, and make the interior cooler. But the other co-benefit it drives is it enhances the space inside for the users. We’re seeing these energy-efficiency measures are also helping us enhance user experience.”

Chad Makovsky, executive vice-president of operations at DFW Airport, added the airport is also looking into replacing their already sustainable compressed natural gas with renewable methane gas.

“As you look at [compressed natural gas], which the vast majority of our commercial ground transportation uses, we are now shifting to a model where we’re actually going to purchase renewable gas from the landfills,” Makovsky said. “As you know, landfills create methane gas. If you capture that, and you purify the methane gas, bring it back to the airport, then we can put that into our buses. It really creates this circular flow. Our waste streams go out, we capture the gas by-product of that, we bring it back to the airport, and we use it for energy. It’s not something the customers will necessarily see, but it is a tremendous way for us to look at how we can improve our footprint in the community.”

Horton said it is important for DFW Airport, and airports around the world, to join the sustainability movement and start taking a serious look at how airports can become more environmentally-friendly.

“It’s more than just the right thing to do, it’s the proper business strategy for an organization,” Horton said. “If you don’t have these strategies as part of your organizational plan, you’re going to be on the wrong side of history. We definitely believe there’s a need to take action.”