Future-proofed airports go beyond sustainability

Covid and the energy crisis showed airports need to become more resilient and add new revenue streams. We find that intermodality and energy independence are the way to do so.

Some of our readers may recall the MTA ad in the 1980s encouraging New Yorkers to use the JFK Express – a train service linking the city to JFK International Airport. “Take the train to the plane” might not have been the best-sounding jingle in advertising history, but it certainly was catchy. Some 40 years later, it’s still relevant, with airport operators looking to improve connectivity between cities and their facilities.

In this month’s issue of Infrastructure Investor, we highlighted the example of Linate Airport, which collaborated with the city of Milan to build a new metro station linking the airport with the city centre, and building a new car park equipped with EV charging infrastructure to serve commuters, thus expanding its customer base.

France is doing something similar and on a much larger scale through the Grand Paris Express project, which will expand the existing metro and commuter rail network in Île-de-France, adding almost 200km of new metro lines improving connectivity between Paris and its airports – Charles de Gaulle, Orly and Le Bourget.

Another initiative is that of SEA Milan, operator of both Linate and Malpensa Airports, which is working on developing a joint venture with Skyports, a London-based advanced air mobility company. The joint venture, which is expected to launch in H1, will focus on the development of a vertiport network in Milan and the Lombardy region. The first two vertiports are expected to be operational in time for the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan-Cortina.

Aside from contributing to a more sustainable mode of transport to and from the airport – vertiports enable the use of electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles – SEA Milan also views it as “a potential new business, a new source of revenues”, its chief executive Armando Brunini, said during a recent industry event.

And while transforming airports into intermodal transportation hubs can reduce their Scope 3 emissions and generate additional revenue at the same time, producing renewable energy onsite can also achieve the latter.

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, “if enough energy can be generated, airports could sell clean surplus energy production to the surrounding community”. Or, they can allow third parties to generate energy on their property through land lease, ICAO notes.

But even in those cases where generating revenue through renewable energy production is not possible, there are still plenty of good reasons why airports should consider producing their own power on-site. These include, in addition to cutting their Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, saving on energy costs, safeguarding against price volatility and becoming more energy independent. There are several airports that recognise the potential benefits and have already added renewable energy to their tool kit.

Melbourne Airport is a great example. In December 2019, it began constructing a 12MW solar farm on-site. Comprising 30,000 solar panels and spanning 47 acres, it is said to generate up to 15 percent of the airport’s annual electricity consumption, which is enough to power all four passenger terminals.

Denver International Airport is another case in point, hosting 10 solar PV arrays with a combined generation capacity of 28MW with plans to install rooftop solar PV systems for each of its new concourse expansions.

An added advantage, according to ICAO, is that if airports design renewable energy projects with the potential impact of climate change in mind, they can also increase the resiliency of their facilities.

All of which adds up to this: while sustainability is a key part of airports’ future, future-proofed airports go beyond sustainability. As the aviation industry and the rest of the world waits for production of sustainable aviation fuel to scale up, hydrogen planes to take off and the EU to implement the European Single Sky initiative, the above scenarios should keep airport owners plenty busy.