Sustainability In Aviation, Part I


Solar panels and wind turbine at Heritage Aviation

Solar panels and wind turbine at Heritage Aviation, Burlington Int’l KBTV, Burlington, VT

Sustainability has become a popular topic of discussion in many circles, including aviation. Here we begin a series of installments to describe what sustainability means, what it entails, how it is evaluated, and its influence in aviation.

This author’s interest in the idea of sustainability grew out of research into airport management strategies and styles. Over the past year or so in the HN eNewsletter we’ve described a number of airports as examples of what we termed modern airport management, by which we mean the emergence over the past fifteen to twenty years of a managerial style that, compared to historical norms, has demonstrated a more assertive sense of entrepreneurship and innovation in identifying new revenue streams, incorporating new (and so-called green) technologies and practices, and fostering good community relations, all while maintaining peak operational efficiency.

The reasons why this style has caught on and continues to gain traction are many, including the following:  a) Advances in the application of current scientific knowledge in solar and wind power generation,  b) Developments in the understanding of chemistry and ecological systems and their incorporation into renovations and new construction practices (i.e. LEED technologies), c) The recent development of smart technologies enabling the extremely efficient, coordinated, and optimized control of many aspects of interior and exterior environments of airport infrastructure, structures, and landscaping, and finally d) The influx into the industry of a new generation of managers and management teams who embrace modern technology, are responsive to the desire of host municipalities and other governing bodies to become more profitable, or at least less of a financial burden (i.e., carry their own fiscal weight), and are subject to constant pressure from many sides to deliver greater efficiency in economic, environmental, social, and operational domains.

The research revealed that one of the elements playing a fundamental role in modern airport management is the concept of sustainability. What began primarily as “socially responsible” investment choices in the early history of the US, has steadily gained favor across more and more sectors of the economy, including aviation, and in fact has evolved into a broader movement toward sustainability in many aspects of life, work, and play.

Thus we thought now would be a good time to begin a series describing the general principles underlying the concept, how those principles are applied and evaluated, and what it all means for the aviation industry.

The concept of sustainability has actually been around for quite some time. But what exactly does “sustainability” mean? Turns out it means different things to different people, but in its broadest sense, sustainability can be thought of as the long-term endurance of systems and processes.

Applied to biological systems, it means that a specific population or ecosystem remains diverse and productive indefinitely. Old-growth forests, wetlands, and littoral or intertidal zones are examples of sustainable biological systems, as are many predator-prey interrelationships. To be sure, biological systems are not in a continual steady-state, but generally cyclical in nature.  That is, populations rise and fall, with individual species typically out of phase with each other but with some degree of synchrony around an equilibrium point. They not only survive, but endure and thrive over periods as long as centuries or even millenia.

On a macro scale such as pertains to human populations, sustainability can be defined as a socio-economic-ecologic process driven by the pursuit of common goals or ideals, and in this sense has often been used to refer to the long-term survival of the human species on earth.

As mentioned above, socially responsible investment decisions have been around for a long time. As early as the 1700s, religious organizations based such decisions around their philosophies. For example the early Methodist Church refused on principle to invest in companies that produced liquor, tobacco, or gambling paraphernalia. And while those principles served well for the Methodists, they had little impact on the greater good, which in this author’s view was and is, the survival of the human species.

Of course, technology has since advanced beyond even the wildest imagination of the residents of mid-18th century America, and sustainability has grown out of those humble beginnings and progressed to incorporate more active and scientifically-based means of managing the resources of the planet.

Building products made from recycled concrete, metal, and wood can be obtained at lower cost than the original materials. Energy from onsite solar and wind equipment enable operators and airports to reduce or eliminate consumption and maybe even realize revenue from selling power to the grid. Interior environments are controlled using microprocessor-based smart technology to coordinate heating, cooling, air movement, and water usage. Architects design for larger window areas using smart glass, along with LEDs for better lighting with less energy use. Low-flow plumbing fixtures cut water consumption, as does the use of recycled rainwater and drought-tolerant landscaping techniques.

All of the methodologies just mentioned substantially lower expenses by utilizing less costly building materials and reducing the consumption of energy and water, while improving the work environment for the people employed at those facilities.

Technology has advanced to be more efficient and in doing so delivers solid returns on investment while being environmentally-conscious and promoting sustainability into a business-savvy trend among investors.  The companies at the grass-roots level employing sustainable materials, technologies, and processes to optimize their operation have reaped the economic benefits of having the foresight and courage to look at a new way of doing business. A related result is that investors and investment firms that once developed and managed “socially responsible” portfolios have evolved to market portfolios made up of companies embracing the ethos of sustainability.

In the next installment we’ll look at more details regarding the technologies, materials, and practices used to make an operation sustainable.

Mike Straka, PhD
HN Staff Writer & Technical Support
Immediate Past Chairman, Colorado Aviation Business Association