Green airports of the future

Solar panels at George Airport, South Africa

Kerala state which occupies a narrow strip in the south-western coast of India is often described as “God’s own country”.

Few places in the world – namely the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland, Yorkshire in England and a pinch of other locations globally in the then British Empire – share this accolade.

For the state of Kerala, its tourism department could have picked this slogan to match the beautiful, picturesque and perfectly laid out landscape.

Located in the city of Kochi, the state hosts Cochin International Airport, which is the world’s first fully solar-powered airport.

It’s development, dubbed aviation’s first venture owned by the public, under a public-private partnership was funded by non-resident Indians residing in over 30 different countries.

While operating on full solar power, Cochin’s airport management plans on expanding capacity and selling excess power generated to the national grid.

Interestingly this airport, commissioned in 1999, handled over 8.9 million passengers in 2016 and ranks as the seventh-busiest airport in India.

Those passenger numbers put Cochin International Airport at par with Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport – Ethiopia’s only international airport and the busiest in sub-Saharan Africa.

One would expect that with the perennial power shortage problems facing even international airports in the region, solar power would be a top consideration as an alternative source of energy.

Today, we still have several international African airports running mainly on inefficient energy sources like diesel powered generators powering critical airport systems.

But when it comes to “Green Airports” on the continent, South Africa is taking the lead so far with three solar-powered domestic airports and another three expected by end of 2017.

George Airport with an annual handling capacity of about 700,000 passengers was used by Airports Company South Africa as a “test case”.

Renewable energy sources like solar would not be the only mark of green airports for the future. There is more that travelers should expect from airports.

According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), Action Plan on Emissions Reductions –  green practices for airports – include environmental management systems, aircraft noise management, air quality management, water resource management, energy conservation, waste management and wildlife strike hazard reduction.

There are several airports in the world already leading the charge towards more eco-friendly airports for instance, Zurich Airport in Switzerland whose toilets use only rain water and the heating-cooling systems run on geothermal energy.

Another interesting example is Indira Ghandi International Airport with a water recycling system, was designed to use natural light in the daytime and whose construction was done using only recycled materials.

The airport shares the recycled material construction features with Logan airport Boston which has a heat reflecting roof and boasts of customer savvy plans.

So far, the largest solar-powered airport in the United States would be Denver International which has great power saving and recycling facilities coupled with the worlds greenest parking lot.

Amazingly when it comes to ranking of the best airports in the world, some of the features above would not count so much.

Many airport ranking bodies weight heavily annual passenger traffic capacity and surface area coverage followed by passenger experience.

According to Skytrax World Airport Awards, which lists the best airports globally on an annual basis, their reports are usually based on airline customer surveys evaluating mainly traveler experiences.

There is still no category for the most environmentally friendly airport in its ranking.

Some of the key performance indicators in the survey review customer experience touch points principally, from check-in, arrivals, transfers, shopping, security and immigration through to departure at the gate.

Of the nearly 40 different traveler experience touch points namely ease of airport access, courtesy and attitude of airport staff, immigration handling, ease of navigation of airport, comfort, ambiance, design, cleanliness of washroom facilities, availability of rest areas, choice of bars, cafes, restaurants, duty free shopping are just some of the items passengers classify as very important to them.

Even in its ranking of airports, Skytrax limits the categories to Best in – Cleanest, Airport Staff, Shopping, Immigration, Dining, Security, Baggage Delivery and Leisure Amenities.

Surprisingly, none of the African airports made it to the top 10 2017 listing in any of these categories – in fact on the overall listing of top 100 in 2017, Cape Town International Airport emerged nineteenth ahead of Dubai International Airport.

Regionally, Kigali International Airport emerged fifth in Best Airports in Africa 2017. It is not the largest in terms of passenger numbers or airport size but its raking was primarily because of improved passenger experience at the airport.

It is high time African airports paid more attention to the traveler airport experience and more ecofriendly solutions as it strives to improve its airport infrastructure.

Michael Otieno is an aviation consultant based in Nairobi. Twitter: @pmykee143, Email: [email protected].