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Debate | Sustainable Airports


When it comes to connecting cities, airports and aviation are a firm part of the mix. Worldwide, passenger numbers are growing and that is true of the UK too.

One of the key aims of the government’s consultation on UK aviation strategy, which closed in October last year was to explore ways to support growth while tackling the environmental impacts of expansion. It is the responsibility of the government and industry leaders to ensure that the aviation sector grows in a sustainable way, the consultation document said.

The consultation has now closed and the government’s “Next Steps” document (see box) outlines its key objectives for the strategy, ahead of the publication of a final aviation strategy in 2019.

Sustainable growth framework

It addresses issues such as whether a sustainable growth framework should be introduced, and how to achieve balance between growing the sector, acting to tackle carbon emissions, reducing noise and improving air quality. The final strategy will guide the efforts of the government and industry to make sure UK aviation remains a global leader.

Meanwhile Heathrow is waiting on government to agree a national policy statement for additional capacity in the South East, a decision which would pave the way for it to deliver its third runway. Around the UK, major expansion projects are either underway or in the pipeline at major airports such as London City, Manchester and Stansted.

But as the airports push forward with ambitious expansion plans at the same time as the need for UK infrastructure development picks up pace, how can the supply chain help deliver the sustainable growth required?

Rob ewen crop

Rob ewen crop

Ewen: Fewer workers needed on site

When it comes to adding capacity sustainably, Heathrow Airport will use four offsite logistics hubs – one in Scotland – to manufacture components for the third runway. The hubs will promote small and medium sized enterprises by decentralising the supply chain with the aim of increasing efficiency and cutting emissions.

Hubs will have to demonstrate that they will have a positive economic impact in their areas as well as good connectivity, access to a relevant supply chain, strong local skills, support in their region and adequate facilities.

Heathrow expansion delivery director Rob Ewen says it is about taking the work to the worker.

“Let’s not rely on taking the person from where they live and taking them to where the work is. Do the skilled bit in a factory with a worker or a robot and then have an assembly process on site. That’s where we’re aiming for.”

The move will mean fewer workers are required onsite and will improve employee health, safety and wellbeing. It will also share the manufacturing effort around the UK. So far 65 sites have been longlisted and when work begins it will be the first time a major UK construction scheme has used offsite construction hubs, ensuring 60% of procurement spending for expansion will be outside London.

Heathrow believes the hubs will give the UK an economic boost of £30bn.

Logistics hub benefits

Benefits of the logistics hubs will be felt by other infrastructure projects once  the planned Heathrow expansion is complete – adding to its long-term sustainability.

“We’re talking to all the major projects,” Ewen says. “While Heathrow will take the lead on these hubs, personally I would like to think over the next 10 years, why couldn’t there be one in every region, where the supply chain is networking through people that are using the factories that exist in those regions and feeding not always just into London but wherever the big projects are.”

WSP aviation director Tim Morrison says the hub concept could be taken further with these sites being developed into real centres of excellence for aviation.

“Should there be a centre of excellence that does this research which is then shared by the airports? Are we big enough to do that now. Should we as an industry be a bit bigger and bolder at what we do?” he asks.

Encouraging graduates and apprentices to join the aviation industry is key to its long-term sustainability.

“We need to generate that interest to get people into the aviation industry, whether that’s through apprenticeships or degrees,” says Bechtel aviation project manager Jonathon Hunter.

“Let’s take that inspiration from Crossrail and bring it to aviation because we don’t do enough of that.”

Sustainability can mean green construction methods but it can also be about addressing the long term environmental impact of developments says Dublin Airports Authority head of design and delivery Stephen Byrne. It is about “people, about business and about environment,” he says.

Stephen byrne crop

Stephen byrne crop

Byrne: People, businesses and environment

Innovation will be the key to sustainability as technological advances redefine what airlines and the public require from an airport.

“In the 2020s technology is going to be radically different in airports and will change how we approach airport design. What type of aircraft will they use? How will they want to engage with the passenger? How to deal with baggage reclaim is one of the biggest challenges, it takes up something like 40% of an airport terminal,” Byrne adds.

A focus on how the building may be used in the future, after its original purpose has come to an end; and taking into account technological advances which will alter the requirements of aviation infrastructure, can help a building become more sustainable over the course of its life.

“Ultimately a true sustainable building is something that has gone up with that very, very low carbon impact, but actually is a building that can be re-purposed again and again,” says Morrison.

Tim morrison crop

Tim morrison crop

Morrison: Sustainable equals re-purposable

“Some of the buildings I am most proud of are now buildings that are doing something completely different. That’s great, that means that none of that concrete, stone, none of it is being wasted.”

“It means a very tough investment decision up front,” he adds.  “Flexibility can cost money, but only at that very first moment. The lifecycle of the project is a different equation, you then get something that pays you back because you’ve got something you can work with.”

Tarmac national business development manager Shaun Mulholland agrees that although a sustainable structure may be more expensive to construct, it will be more cost effective in the long term.

He said: “As soon as you bring in whole life cost and start looking at what is cheap and cost effective, it now might not be when I have got to dismantle it in 15 years’ time.

“This is where you look at sustainability. If it has been designed in such a way, it can be deconstructed without an effect on the environment.”

Debate participants 

This report is based on a round table discussion that took place at New Civil Engineer’s Airports conference in April. The participants were:

Stephen Byrne, head of design and delivery, Dublin Airports Authority

Ed Challis, operations director, Morgan Sindall

Tony Dixon, major projects director, Tarmac

Rob Ewen, expansion programme delivery director, Heathrow Airport Ltd

Andrew Goodenough, development director, Bristol Airport

Mark Hansford, editor,

New Civil Engineer

Jonathan Hunter, aviation project manager, Bechtel

Michael Kehoe, framework manager, Amey

Tim Morrison, director of aviation, WSP

Shaun Mulholland, national business development manager, Tarmac

Michael O’Callaghan, director of aviation, Kier

Oliver Peat, senior project manager, Bristol Airport

Chris Scoffield, managing director, Galliford Try Infrastructure, Rail and Aviation


Airports policy

In April  the UK government set out its plans to make the country’s aviation sector world-leading in prioritising passengers, fostering sustainable growth and promoting trade.

The Aviation Strategy Next Steps document outlines proposals which will build on the aviation industry’s work to improve the flying experience for passengers at every stage of their journey.

It also provides more details about the government’s ambitious plan to make Britain’s aviation sector the world’s greenest, including proposals to tackle noise, greenhouse gas emissions and airspace congestion.

Environmental proposals include the introduction of new noise targets, strengthened noise controls at airports and improved compensation for people living near airports.

The government says it will also explore measures to support the use of quieter and more fuel efficient aircraft, as well as the emergence of electric and hybrid technology.

The government said the “next steps” document makes clear its commitment to ensure that the aviation sector continues to grow.

The sector already contributes at least £22bn to the UK economy each year and the strategy will examine what can be done to help it develop even further.


Produced in association with

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Tarmac logo normal




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