The reality of climate change

All too often, the need to plan for the effects of climate change on airports is overlooked in favour of tackling more immediately measurable problems such as emissions, air quality and noise. Yet, in the past five years, over 20 major and many more small island airports have flooded due to a rise in sea level, storm surges or extreme rainfall. These include the devastation of Kansai airport by Typhoon Jebi (2018); severe rainfall in Kerala (2019) leading to the shutdown of Cochin airport; flooding at Don Mueang Airport in Thailand (2011) resulting in a year of disruption; and the shutdown of airports in the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian (2019).

Lack of climate resiliency planning could have a massive impact on large airports, the companies that rely on them and the surrounding cities, as well as on the small island states where the airport is the main economic driver and a critical asset during disaster responses.

Also, too little water can cause issues. From cooling systems to plane washing and passenger needs, airports have huge water footprints which can significantly affect regional water supplies and result in major operational challenges during periods of shortage. This demand is set to rise as the trend towards mega-airports and the proliferation of small island airports continues. Airports must seek to reduce their water footprint through the collection, treatment and reuse of water and strive towards the ideal of closed water systems.

Disaster response

Airports are essential to disaster response for cities and islands, so must be able to operate during extreme weather events. In 2012, hurricane Sandy wrought havoc along the New York and New Jersey coastline, and associated flooding at the regional airports forced disaster relief teams to use alternative airports and travel by road into the disaster area.

Airports in small island states are a lifeline during disaster response situations but can quickly be overwhelmed by incoming aid supplies. A comprehensive understanding of the airport’s capacities and the establishment of a robust disaster response plan are key to keeping these critical assets operational.

Embracing a more resilient future

When Fiji’s main airport was closed due to flooding following Cyclone Evan (2012), it sent shockwaves through the country’s tourism industry and precipitated a major review of the airport’s business continuity plans. Similarly, operators who suffer a weather-related event at one airport have been keen to undertake a review across their portfolio.

However, a benchmark exercise conducted for Singapore’s Changi and Seletar airports by NACO and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) found that, without these major events as catalyst, the number of airports making concerted efforts to mitigate climate risks is relatively small. This benchmark exercise is the first of five steps in an ‘airport climate stress test’. It is followed by assessing relevant climate vectors and physical environment (step 2); identifying critical assets (step 3); assessing impact on operations and assets (step 4); and developing a climate change adaptation pathway or strategy (step 5).

Of those airports actively pursuing a climate resilience plan, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is at the forefront. We’ve been involved in its major transformation project and have worked closely with the operators to incorporate the Water Vision Schiphol 2030. The vision sets out the ambition to cope with the risks of climate change, airport city planning and water management activities to 2030 and beyond, to ensure the most sustainable use of water across all airport activities.

Airports as ambassadors

A fully functioning airport is of no use if the surrounding land and cities are flooded and the airport can’t be reached. By actively, and publicly, working to improve resiliency planning, airports can act as ambassadors for urban areas and island states; leading the way towards more discrete water cycles, the adoption of innovation and a greater willingness to collaborate across private and public sectors.

Vast aerotropoli with their state-of-the-art urban infrastructure are also the ideal proving ground for the latest developments in climate resilience and could set the pace for surrounding cities. From rainwater harvesting to the use of blue-green infrastructure, such as the green roof on the plaza at Schiphol Airport, one of the largest in the Netherlands – the opportunities for improving water stewardship at airports are manifold.

Airports in small island states such as the Galapagos ecological airport, which was awarded the LEED Gold award, are also well placed to be at the forefront of climate change adaptations and set high standards for the surrounding areas.

The role of government

As operators lead their airports and the surrounding cities towards a more resilient future, it is imperative that local and national governments work with them to facilitate this. Applying a systematic approach to resilience planning, aligning national, regional and district policy and establishing a clear adaptation road map with an investment plan are all areas in which government can enable successful implementation of resiliency planning for airports and urban areas.