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Sustainability in aviation

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Sustainability in aviation is only granted by induvial and personal touch points not by „abstract“ climate targets

„No one will value what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they do not understand or have not experienced “

The same applies to getting key stakeholders to buy into a vision for sustainability – especially the most skeptical ones. Engagement is the first step. But bringing passengers and airport visitors on board as partners in implementing plans, will only succeed if they can connect on a personal level with the benefits of changing their behaviors.

Aviation is invaluable for our planet’s socioeconomic development, and airports are in a unique position to support sustainable development. They have dual obligations: Maximizing the socioeconomic positives while minimizing the environmental negatives.

Airports are increasingly in the spotlight when it comes to demonstrating steps they are taking to protect the planet and its inhabitants, who are their passengers at the same time. Smartly integrating sustainability into operations and infrastructure will help airports increase their efficiency, reduce their risk of being severely impacted by climate change. It can further increase their resiliency to the changing operational conditions they will inevitably face.

Investors are more and more applying Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) criteria to evaluate performance. And they are steering investments into companies that follow sustainable practices and that incorporate climate goals into their mission statements, corporate values, and day-to-day operations.

This means that airports with a clear sustainability strategy will be in a better position to access capital, for instance via sustainability-linked bonds, and to be in a better position to grow [without compromising future generations].

California has been a pioneer of climate activities and emissions for decades. One of the important airports (San Francisco International Airport) is being watched through a magnifying glass how it measures up against increased government imposed socioeconomic demands. An airport of relevance and economic significance automatically becomes an ecological benchmark.

Specific projects substantially contribute to the environmental goals and will demonstrate the global targets for the big players in the market. Basically, 6 main areas will be transformed, underpinned by enormous investments:

Source: SFO Zero Net Energy Plan at a cost of $1.6 billion.

Having in mind such substantial investments, the overall energy savings will target about 18-19%. The operating expenses just illustrate $24 million, about 3% of the operating expenses.

Taking into consideration an annual inflation of 5% the overall savings will not contribute more than $54 million until 2030, considering the substantial increase the energy market will stress globally with CPI.

Source: SFO FY 2017-2018 Financial Summary

Comparing now $ 1.6 billion investment volume and looking at the efficiency and savings that green solutions offer, there is a need to recover those Zero Net Energy (ZNE) investments by additional funding.

Taking studies from McKinsey, the overall investments on the airport sector will increase from 60 up to 110 trillion annually. So basically, the necessary upgrades and socioecological power will almost push the borders by 100% on the CAPEX.

Source: McKinsey & Company: Travel, Logistics & Infrastructure Practice

A survey in 13 aviation markets was conducted to obtain views on air travel and climate change. More than 50 % of respondents said they were “really worried” about climate change. Roughly a third of respondents said they were planning to reduce their air travel because of climate concerns, and most respondents said they were willing to pay somewhat more for carbon-neutral tickets, with fliers aged 18 to 34 willing to pay the most.

Source: McKinsey CleanSky Survey, 07-2019

The actual refinancing of necessary investments appears impossible only via accumulated savings. Rather, a ticket surcharge on top of the aviation security charges would – using SFO as an example – add an additional $6 on airline tickets.

Forecasting passenger numbers for SFO predict 73.5 million passengers by 2030. Considering only departing passengers and a growth rate of 3% annually, this could generate an additional funding of $1.45 billion. That would be comparable to the investment volume that is planned for the 6 indicated projects.

The readiness to pay more for “green airports & airlines” is there. 70% of the respondents (see table above) would be willing to consider these price increases as reasonable.


The reorientation to a ZNE airport will result in an enormous volume of investments, which cannot be amortized due to the limited savings in the projects itself (energy consumption and generation). All stakeholders will have to cope with this upheaval in the industry with enormous additional financing and bonds.


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