The construction and maintenance of airside pavements is a considerable contributor to overall airport infrastructure carbon footprint. Pavements are required to perform to a very high reliability and represent financial investment – therefore airports have preferred to rely on the performance certainty of conventional pavements like Portland Cement concrete and asphalt. 

On the road to net zero, decarbonisation of the aviation industry is a hot topic. There are many emerging technologies available to help aviation become a more sustainable industry. However, as with any new technology, adoption comes with risk. 

New technologies in the pavements space, be it alternative materials, recycled products or carbon sequestration techniques, are all potentially plausible/feasible ways we can progress on our journey towards decarbonisation. But in an industry that is understandably risk-averse, how much risk are we willing to take?

Let's just start adopting the new technologies

Conventional pavements have years of track record data to support the prediction of their performance. This makes investment decisions more certain. 

In addition, it is very difficult to simulate long term performance in a laboratory, which results in uncertainty in long term durability. For many new technologies the supporting performance data, specifically in the aviation context, is simply not available. That’s the catch with new technology. To gather the critical performance data, someone must take the first punt.

The risk is ripe for the taking

Risk apportionment is a key barrier for the adoption of new technologies. While engineers, contractors and suppliers may be keen to offer decarbonisation solutions, the overall benefit they gain is relatively small – particularly when considering the short timeframe of their involvement and the often-high liabilities and warranties being demanded. This results in a tendency to remain conservative in the design and construction of aviation infrastructure. 

Airports stand to reap the biggest returns, but they are also required to make the heftiest investment. They are also ultimately selling a level of service to airline customers and the travelling public - this is the cornerstone of their business. Now, they’re considering investing in new forms of infrastructure which offer lower emissions, but also a potential uncertainty in projected lifespan due to untested durability.

As the travelling public, they expect a high certainty in service, a more sustainable offering and all for a low price! 

The sustainable opportunities are there for the taking.

So, who will make the first move?

Risks are inherent in the adoption of new technology. A commitment to share the load, righting the way through the supply chain, is essential to achieve truly sustainable innovation across the aviation sector. This includes sensible risk apportionment and alignment of expectations.

We need to start by trialling technology in manageable sections, creating a more viable proposition for the supply chain to move into the sustainable space.

By identifying specific zones within the airport network, we can push the boundaries on sustainable pavement products while mitigating the impact on overall operations. This approach also reduces the initial outlay for airports. Various forms of technology can be trialled in areas of higher resilience reducing the operational risk.

It is fundamental the industry gather and shares data on their comparative performance. Sharing knowledge this way benefits everyone, as it will build a body of industry knowledge quickly, which can be shared among stakeholders and used to inform better future decisions.

By sharing information, we can use it to better quantify and manage the risk involved. This will lead to more informed and confident decisions about new, more sustainable aviation products.

As engineers, contractors, suppliers and airport operators, we need to work together so that risk apportionment is more commensurate with the participants ability to manage the risk and is reflective of the benefit gained. This requires honesty in terms of sharing knowledge and clarity in expectations.

Aviation certainly has challenges ahead on the road to decarbonisation, however there is a good reason to be optimistic about the future. The industry can make significant strides towards net zero using a smarter, more strategic approach - sharing and collaboration will be the key to success.

Reach out to Craig Downey to find out how sustainability airside in the aviation sector is possible. More information about Beca’s Airport capabilities can also be viewed here.

About the Author
Craig Downey

Principal - Airports

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