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Airports Can Help Make Air Transportation More Sustainable

October 8, 2017

Sustainable aviation biofuels could help airlines transition away from fossil fuels and alleviate some impacts of climate change.

One of the greatest gifts from the greatest generation was the magic of civilian air travel.  Air transportation turbocharged the American economy and opened doors for billions of people around the world.

Our generation’s greatest gift could be to make air travel environmentally friendly by transitioning away from legacy fossil fuels to use less-polluting, lower-carbon solutions. The Port of Seattle and aviation leaders in Washington state are positioned to lead that effort nationally.

Airlines and airports should work together on this transition. Airports are vulnerable to the threats of climate change. A climate change report issued by the U.S. government in 2014 identified 12 airports as vulnerable to storm surges or flooding. Internationally, airports already are taking steps to protect their operations. Hong Kong is planning to build a 20-foot seawall to protect the airport from rising waters, along with adding an airfield drainage system to accommodate extreme weather events.

Climate-related impacts on airports extend inland as well. This summer, a major heat wave forced airlines to cancel nearly 60 flights in and out of the Phoenix airport. A study issued Summer 2017 indicates that later this century, up to 30 percent of flights departing during the heat of the day may require weight restrictions due to elevated temperatures.

Making the transition to sustainable aviation biofuels could alleviate some of the climate impacts. Sustainable aviation biofuel reduces carbon emissions and pollution around airports compared with traditional jet fuel, the largest source of carbon emissions at an airport. Local organizations like Washington State University, Boeing and Alaska Airlines performed groundbreaking science and engineering work that won FAA approval for research related to aviation biofuels. Convinced that a lower-carbon fuel source is achievable, the Port of Seattle has now set an ambitious goal for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to become the first American airport to play a market development role by aggregating demand and making aviation biofuel available to all airlines. Learn more about the Sea-Tac partnership with airlines to use sustainable aviation fuel.

Aircraft emissions are not the only concern in air transportation. The Port of Seattle is working to decrease environmental impacts from buildings and ground transportation to and from the airport. New construction at the airport must meet a minimum of LEED Silver certification. More than a decade ago, Sea-Tac became one of the first airports in the country to require that its taxi fleet meet strict fuel efficiency standards. and in 2016 became the first airport in the country to require that app-enabled ride services like Uber and Lyft meet similar standards. Sea-Tac also has introduced minimum fuel economy of 45 MPG or use of alternative fuels (e.g., natural gas) for their light-duty, on-demand taxi fleet.

The airport is working to increase the number of passengers who use light rail and public transportation. Smart investments like electrified ground support equipment have helped Sea-Tac lower carbon emissions in one sector of the airport while accommodating double-digit passenger growth. The Port’s goal is to cut airport related emissions in half by 2030.

Global aviation generates approximately 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is forecast to grow to 5 percent by 2050. While most industries have a range of cost-effective options available to reduce carbon emissions, aviation does not. For the foreseeable future, there is no alternative to liquid fuels for jet aircraft. The single largest opportunity to decarbonize air travel is to replace conventional, fossil-based jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel. However, SAF commercialization has barely begun and the industry is grappling with a variety of economic and market challenges.

Ten years ago the Washington State Legislature began coordinating state efforts to develop a biofuels market, a biofuels infrastructure supply chain, and convert fossil fuel fleets to alternative fuel fleets. The aviation industry and researchers took that guidance and ran with it.

Air transportation is an essential aspect of our economy that is expected to double from 3.2 billion passengers in 2017 to 7.2 billion passengers by 2035. By acknowledging that air transportation is unsustainable when dependent on fossil fuels, this generation stands ready to bring sustainable aviation biofuels to flight.

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