Held under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, Chairman of Dubai Airports, Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates Airline and Group

How can airports operate more sustainably during the COVID-19 crisis?

With passenger volumes down by an astonishing rate, how can airports manage to transition through the current crisis and reach a level of sustainable operations once again?

By the end of 2020, global air traffic is expected to measure just a little over a third of 2019 levels, representing the most significant drop in completed flights ever witnessed due to a single event. This in turn represents an existential threat to the aviation industry and the 10.2 million jobs that it provides worldwide alongside millions of indirect jobs.

With such a shortfall to contend with, the remaining months of 2020 are not just the backdrop for the industry’s intended road to recovery, they are also a unique opportunity to trial and integrate new business and operational models that could lead to an altogether more sustainable air travel sector.

Thinking big in a time of major change

The impact of COVID-19 is undeniable, and the full effect of its spread is yet to be felt and absorbed. However, periods of unprecedented disruption can also become the catalyst for lasting positive change. Already there have been calls from international aviation organisations for individual airports and airlines to treat this crisis as a sort of ‘reset button’, to re-evaluate existing business models and make big changes as they look for better ways to operate.

Environmental sustainability measures: While financial aid from government sources has differed wildly from country to country, financial aid packages worth millions or even billions of dollars have been offered to parts of the industry. Increasingly, these deals are coming with ‘green strings’ attached to them, as governments want to see greater levels of environmental sustainability commitment coming from airlines.

Politically, morally and economically, now is the right time to lean into the ‘greenification’ of aviation, with leading airports and airlines investing in alternative fuel sources, automation for smarter restructuring of flight routes and ground operations to prevent wasteful practices, better data collection and analysis and other green techs, alongside the scrapping of outdated assets that remain unsustainable and unfit for purpose in a post-COVID world.

Economic sustainability measures: Many of the environmental arguments for wide-ranging industry changes are echoed by sound economic reasoning. For years, if not decades, airlines and airports have focused so intently on outcompeting one another, that they have let all manner of unsustainable practices become entrenched due to the assumption that they are necessary to keep hold of existing customers.

Now, the times call for the cutting of excessive consumption and wastefulness across the board – antiquated planes and ground support equipment, unsustainable flight routes and poorly planned/designed/maintained airport infrastructure should all be in the sights of operators looking to create a sustainable future.

New tech will also be essential in the fight to make the realigned aviation industry of the post-COVID future an economically viable one, as improvements in passenger demand forecasting, terminal and GS operations, commercial services, passenger processing and safety, and a whole host of associated factors will be driven by the smart integration of appropriate digital innovations.

Getting off the ground again

With projections about aviation’s future changing seemingly on a daily basis, uncertainty and disruption have practically become the subtitles for the first half of 2020.

While there is still plenty of grim reading to be found regarding the near inevitable liquidation of airlines around the world, the tentative reopening of major airports and resumed flow of global traffic gives us cause for hope. Taking this to the next step and reinvigorating the entire global industry will be a project measured in years rather than months, but the lasting changes may quickly allow leading players to pivot toward a fundamentally more sustainable future.

This article was created in association with Airport Show taking place in Dubai on 26-28 October 2020. 

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