With Summer 2021 upon us, it feels like an ideal time to check the temperature of the slow-budding romance between the aviation industry and sustainability. I recently spoke with Joe Agati, COO and Director of Design at Agati Furniture, about the critical nature of their connection. Long on keeping a healthy distance, the past few years have brought their orbits ever closer. A brief history lesson is warranted here to provide a clearer picture as to where we are today, as well as set a trend line for the future. Like any long-lasting relationship, maintenance and perseverance is required for fulfillment.
20 years ago, sustainability was a little-known term within the aviation industry, with proponents cast as outliers. 15 years ago, demonstrated energy saving from facility efficiencies aligned “green” with “$” and the hints of acceptance were in the air. 10 years ago, the industry was emerging from the prolonged hangover of the Great Recession and understanding the total cost of ownership held equal sway with other core drivers for airport operations.
5 years ago brought success stories in net zero facilities, environmental documentation programs, biophilia, and employee wellness, all while airports across the world experienced record numbers of travelers.
Which brings us to today. Given the epic proportions of the impact of COVID-19, it borders on tone deafness to wave the flag of sustainability. And yet, it has never been a better time to reflect, apply lessons learned, and adapt for an unpredictable future. With a vaccination rollout successfully combatting rising infection rates, Americans have returned to the air and the greater public realm. Images of mass gatherings feel like 2019 all over again. However, we cannot go back to the way it was, even if we pretend everything is “back to normal.” The risk is in forgetting or abject denial. A forgotten trauma is akin to an untreated wound, and it will fester like one. Recent stories of in-air hostility are sure to prompt social scientists to examine the long-term costs of 2020 beyond the immediate physical health impacts. Against this backdrop, there has never been a more apt time to self-reflect and consider our own role as architects as we try to have a positive impact in the fight against global climate change.
Hold the Lantern High
Air travel has always had the allure and tangible benefits of connecting the world. To be sure, this comes with a price, namely carbon emissions. Jet A fuel is an effective propellant for getting heavy weights airborne but is a significant consumer of fossil fuels. Witnessing the dizzying speed at which the automobile industry has embraced electric vehicles makes one think the aviation market will soon follow. A hybrid mix of hydrogen, electric, and biofuels propulsion may be the cocktail to avoid environmental penalties looming on the horizon.
It was 118 degrees in Siberia yesterday. Let that sink in for a minute. Lake Mead was at its lowest water level the same day. Power generation at some dams are on hold until water levels increase. Western wildfires abound and it is only June. Climate science provides the consensus on the connection between the burning of fossil fuels with resource depletion and weather volatility. A collective effort by all is needed to avoid a climate tipping point. Airports have always been the face of their communities as they are the most public of civic infrastructure. Sustainability needs to be a necessary component of our national airport system if we want to continue providing the vital global connections on which our communities rely. How about a clarion call for the aviation industry to be an environmental tone setter, aligning green goals with fiscal motivations while being clothed in social equity?
Where are you going? Why are you going? What will you buy? How will you provide for the passenger? How, or if, will you dispose of the byproducts of air travel? What do you owe to the community, the cultural landscape, or to the planet? How will you demonstrate compliance? Who, if anyone, stands to benefit in the future?
The answers to these questions will vary at the personal/corporate/community/national level. Connecting people across the world to provide the ongoing magic of the human connection is why we will solve the riddle of our role in the sky.