Director General, Airports Council International Europe (ACI EUROPE)
When GTP asked me how the airport sector is progressing on its path to a “sustainable recovery”, my first instinct was to uncouple the twin pillars of “sustainability” and “recovery”. Because just like the tourism and hospitality industries, air travel had first and foremost to simply get back on its feet. And this wasn’t straightforward. Europe’s airports endured a stop-start recovery. They had to have recourse to a massive increase in debt – more than 60 billion euros – just to stay afloat, with inherent fragilities – both internal and external – raw and exposed. Even now we’re looking at a patchwork picture of those who have largely recovered their pre-pandemic passenger traffic volumes (notably insular and tourism-driven destinations fed by low cost carriers – like the Greek airports) and those who still have a way to go (like major international hubs, but also German airports more generally and those exposed to the fall out of the war in Ukraine).
And yet. Against a challenging backdrop of a stop-start COVID-19 recovery and a volatile operating environment, we have clear evidence of the ongoing momentum for airport climate action. The Airport Carbon Accreditation programme, launched in 2009 and now the global standard for carbon management, reported steadily increasing numbers of airports both joining the programme and progressing through its stages. 279 airports across Europe are today working on reducing their CO2 emissions, up from 147 in June 2019 – before the pandemic hit. They are all committed to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest, with 130 of them actually having set their target date at 2030 or earlier – just as Athens International Airport which is targeting 2025.
So the idea of a “sustainable recovery” isn’t such an oxymoron after all.
Moving on from the pandemic, as we surely must, the drumbeat of “Build Back Better” is one taken in both the spirit and the letter by the airport industry.
We are transitioning through a momentous shift, from volume driven entities to businesses operating in a highly competitive environment where capacity constraints on the one hand and regulatory as well as social pressures on the other hand are a challenging twin dynamic. But with customary vision and determination, the new airport paradigm of sustainable, digitised operations with the passenger at the heart is already taking shape.
Athens International Airport is a prime example of this. Greece’s largest self-production facility, a 16-megawatt photovoltaic park, was recently inaugurated there. It is already producing approximately 45% of the electricity the airport consumes on an annual basis – and this equates to the consumption of around 6,500 households.
When we speak of the airport of the future also fulfilling the role of an ‘enerport’ or energy hub for the community, this clearly isn’t just futuristic thinking.
A similar project underway at Scotland’s Glasgow Airport aims to provide for the power needs of both the airport and its neighbouring businesses.
As our members are engaged in this massive paradigm shift, we as their trade body are also hard at work representing them on a plethora of cross-industry platforms as well as with the EU institutions, Governments and other international organisations. It’s going to take the entirety of the aviation ecosystem to make meaningful progress, and airports are front and centre in many of these initiatives, working hand-in-glove with the wider aviation sector. ACI EUROPE is a member of the “EU Alliance for Zero-Emission Aviation”, preparing the market for the entry into service of zero-emission aircraft, and we have taken the lead on a specific working group looking at the barriers, challenges and opportunities related to introducing electric and hydrogen aircraft at aerodromes. We’re also a founding partner in the Destination 2050 initiative, which is the detailed roadmap for the decarbonisation of aviation, with a clear ambition to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
In short, when it comes to sustainable recovery, one size does not fit all. But the commitment to the 2050 net zero carbon goal does. It is through ACI EUROPE that the European airport industry has come together and formally committed to that goal since 2019 as regards CO2 emissions from airport operations fully within our control. In getting there, we strive not only to lead by example but to seek out the widest range of partners and collaborators from travel, tourism and our local and regional communities, and embracing innovators and disruptors along the way. We look forward to the shared journey.