The airport of the future will look different, but more importantly it will also be sustainable

22 October, 2020

An impending capacity crunch in airport and aerospace infrastructure from the rapid rise in global air transport may have been averted - or at least delayed a little to be more accurate - by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will make very little difference to the thought-process for the airport of the future.

The aftermath of 9-11 changed airport security and COVID-19 will do the same when it comes to hygiene, but there is a much bigger picture around finding a sustainable model for the future that dominates the agenda. What it does provide is perhaps a five-year breathing space to ensure some best practice guidelines and models are built to support the inevitable rise of air transportation.

The airport of the future will certainly look different, but more importantly it will also be sustainable. In close collaboration with Danish Technological Institute, a consortium led by Copenhagen Airport (CPH) in collaboration with 14 other European partners has won an European Union tender to create the sustainable airport of the future.

A grant of close to EUR12 million will be spent to develop and demonstrate specific solutions, exemplifying how an airport can be designed to operate completely without carbon emissions and deliver infrastructure to carbon-neutral aircraft.

The airports of Lithuania and Rome along with Solidarity Transport Hub Poland (CPK), which is in charge of the new airport in Warsaw, are among the partners on the project, the results of which are proposed to inspire the entire continent of Europe. Others involved include Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), Nordic Initiative for Sustainable Aviation (NISA), International Air Transport Association (IATA), German Aerospace Center (DLR) and AirBP.

The aviation industry is undergoing a transition that no later than 2050 will see carbon emissions from aircraft and airports completely eliminated. While there are many technological opportunities and solutions, there are also quite a few barriers to achieving a green transition for the sector. That is why the European Commission has allocated funds from its Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme for a "Smart Airports" project.

Copenhagen Airport has been selected as a so-called lighthouse airport to head a European consortium. The purpose is to demonstrate how airport infrastructure of the future should be designed to reduce and eventually completely eliminate carbon emissions.

"With this project, we aim to develop specific solutions and create a comprehensive concept for designing the airport of the future. We must be able to provide an infrastructure for the aircraft of the future, which may be electric or powered by hydrogen or other sustainable fuels," explains Thomas Woldbye, CEO, Copenhagen Airport. At the same time, the partners will investigate how to integrate electrification and solar panels into airport design, so that we can power buildings, vehicles and aircraft and thereby eventually completely phase out carbon emissions.

The ALIGHT project (a lighthouse for the introduction of sustainable aviation solutions for the future) aims to develop solutions to two overall challenges. The first is about the process and logistics of handling sustainable aviation fuels in an operational context, including procurement, blending, fuelling, quality controls and safety processes.

The other issue concerns the development of smart energy solutions for other airport operations, including own production of sustainable energy as well as energy storage and electrification. Another part of the project will be to develop the aircraft stand of the future, supporting sustainable aircraft fuels such as electric power and hydrogen.

Currently, the main barrier is that very few airports are prepared for the many new fuels, because their infrastructure is designed exclusively for the fuels used today.

The entire development phase and the day-to-day work will be based at the lighthouse airport in Copenhagen but will be closely monitored by the fellow airports in Rome and Lithuania and the organisation building a whole new airport in Warsaw that is scheduled for completion in 2027.

Accordingly, the ALIGHT project will first and foremost create solutions and contribute with know-how, scope and guidelines for developing the sustainable airport of the future; initially in Copenhagen and later when the results are replicated and applied elsewhere. In other words, the project will contribute to the achievement of the climate targets of reducing emissions from aviation that national governments committed to at the Paris Agreement, while at the same time creating a clear vision for sustainable airports of the future.

In this way, the project should become a source of inspiration to other airports, as they can benefit from the knowledge being compiled over the coming years. The partners in the project will contribute with self-financing of more than EUR3 million, bringing the total value of the project to more than EUR15 million.

The project will also consider which green energy sources that will work in the complex infrastructure of an airport, including its very high security requirements. Overall, the new project is expected to provide new perspectives that will be of interest not only to aviation but also to its other project partners across other industry sectors.

ALIGHT will run for four years from the project start-up date of 01-Nov-2020. This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme which has existed since 2014 and expires at the end of 2020. Horizon 2020 has allocated almost DKK 600 billion to various projects, of which DKK 7.5 billion is earmarked for sustainable development.

Global air capacity collapsed as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world. After an initial stabilisation stage, we had until Aug-2020 seen continued steps of recovery, followed by a plateauing and a slow downhill slide in capacity levels. After another small step up as we entered Oct-2020 we are seeing another slow downhill slide in capacity levels, accelerating at a pace this week (Source: Corporate Travel Community (CTC) and OAG - data: 19-Oct-2020)