Airports of tomorrow will be more than just transportation hubs, becoming destinations that deliver unparalleled user experiences, compatible with a net zero future and employing innovative technologies. Graham Bolton and Kim Yates discuss sustainable growth for the aviation industry.
What do we expect of the airport of tomorrow?
Inclusive customer experience will be at the heart of tomorrow’s airports. With technology advancements, passengers expect more from their experience. A human-centred approach to operational planning, infrastructure design and technology integration will enable more convenient and predictable journeys – and perhaps the potential to surprise and delight. And by pursuing better integration with the wider environment, airports can better serve its passengers, the airport community and society.
Aviation and airports have long contributed to social inclusion, enabling the movement of goods and people essential for economic and social development, and connecting families and friends around the world. But the airport of tomorrow will need to do more. Better understanding and addressing the needs of different users, and challenging costs of operation and development, will make air travel accessible to a larger portion of the population. Likewise, closer engagement with local communities throughout the development process will create airports that respect and represent their local environment and share the benefits more widely.
The future of aviation needs to be planned carefully to achieve desirable and inclusive outcomes for society. However, we are already seeing the potential of new forms of zero-emission aviation ‘advanced air mobility’ to improve connectivity to remote communities, accelerate delivery of medical supplies in congested cities, and potentially play a part in reducing road congestion and resulting air and noise pollution.
Airports play a key role in supporting the success of local and national economies, through job creation, tourism, and trade. Equally, many make a direct economic contribution to the national and regional economy through dividends, concession fees and local taxes – a contribution overlooked by many until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, disrupting international travel. Airports designed with a focus on efficiency, sustainability and passenger experience will support economic success not just for investors, but for the wider communities they serve. By optimising the use of assets, improving processes, and reducing energy and material consumption – informed by use of data and enabled by new technologies – airports of tomorrow will continue to make a key economic contribution.
Airports must evolve to support the aviation sector pathway to net zero future. Whilst airport operational emissions (scope 1 and 2) form a very small part of total sector emissions, the airport of the future has a critical role in supporting wider decarbonisation of the sector. A campus wide approach to energy will initially include decarbonisation of airport infrastructure and of third-party ground operations – evolving to accommodate potential future zero-emission aircraft. The strategy may include provision of on- and off-site renewable generation and load balancing, underpinned by smart solutions, alongside basic energy efficiency measures. Providing flexibility to adapt to the emerging requirements and timetable for adoption of new aircraft types, for example the electric and hydrogen aircraft expected this decade, will be key. Net-zero for aviation is no longer an option. The task is to deliver it most effectively.
Our airports of tomorrow must adapt in response to increasingly frequent and severe climate-related extreme weather events. Better understanding of physical climate change risks, alongside other operational risks, is essential in planning future airport operations and associated infrastructure. Physical and operational mitigations must reduce exposure to impacts and damage arising from them, but it is impractical to avoid the physical impacts of climate change altogether. So adaptation measures need to be geared to maximising the speed and minimising the cost of recovery.
Understanding the interdependence of airports and connecting infrastructure is equally key. The resilience of surface transport or utilities will play a part in establishing the overall ability of airports to perform during and after severe weather. Innovative design and engineering solutions that can mitigate the impact of climate change events while also promoting sustainable practices will be key – for example, the introduction of green roofs and sustainable drainage solutions to slow stormwater runoff and prevent flooding. By promoting sustainable practices, airports can ensure their own survival and contribute to broader efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change.
Airports should consider their societal importance in the event of a major climate catastrophe. Airports that develop a high level of resilience are likely to survive and perform better than neighbouring communities. Therefore, airports could be ‘disaster havens’ when circumstances demand.
Capacity optimisation will continue to be a priority for airports of tomorrow – responding to continued growth in demand, without adversely impacting customer experience, safety and security, or the environment. Continued focus on process optimisation and utilisation of existing assets will play a part – alongside expansion with more environmentally efficient and new facilities. Adoption of innovative technologies, such as advanced analytics, artificial intelligence and automation will support this more effective use of airport functions. For example, using data analytics to predict and adapt operations to changing passenger flows, or dynamically balancing energy demand across the campus.
What do we need to do to achieve this?
The big opportunities for transformative change in aviation require inclusive and connected thinking like never before. That will involve greater collaboration, the transfer of ideas from diverse sectors and disciplines, inclusion of different perspectives, and input from social and environmental as well as technical practitioners. It challenges us to think bigger than the traditional functional parts of an airport, becoming more aware of the airport as an integrated campus, and of the airport’s interconnectivity and interdependency with wider social, economic, environmental and infrastructure systems. It drives us to think smarter – considering the technologies we have now to enable change and the application of future technologies that airports can adopt to support their operational functions and as a key enabler of great visitor experiences.
Airports of tomorrow need us to think holistically, putting people at the core of design and taking into consideration the end-to-end journey.
What are we doing about this in practice?
Our teams have a strong track record of providing strategic planning, design and delivery advice to many of the leading airport clients around the world, including Heathrow, Singapore, Hong Kong, Delhi, New York, Athens and Auckland.
Drawing on skills from our social, environmental and digital teams, we are helping to develop inclusive customer experience processes, design carbon reduction programmes and developing future capacity across these and other major global airports. In parallel, we are engaged in collaborative research and development programmes, supporting policy makers, and working on projects to deliver zero emission regional connectivity and urban air mobility.
To remain thriving and sustainable businesses in future decades, many airports face the prospect of making complex and large-scale organisational changes, as much as changes to their assets and operations. We are developing enterprise architecture to support that – to assist owners, operators and their supply chains develop the capability and capacity required. And we’re applying digital twin solutions that will support operational efficiency, the reduction of operational and embedded carbon, and mitigation of the physical risks from climate change.
Aviation has and will continue to have a significant social and economic value. It has a key role to play in addressing global challenges and together, we have the opportunity and responsibility to develop the pathway to the future and shape the airport of tomorrow.
- Mott MacDonald has over 50 years’ experience in aviation and has played core roles in planning and delivering many of the world’s leading airports
- This article was first published in Industry Aviation, Issue 2, 2023
Graham Bolton is global aviation lead, Mott MacDonald
Kim Yates is UK and Europe climate change lead, Mott MacDonald