Future growth of the aviation sector (including necessary new infrastructure) and environmental sustainability are inextricably linked and mutually dependent.
Airports act as engines of social and economic growth and the direct and indirect benefits linked to their operation are considerable and in many cases airport growth is seen as a nationally or regionally vital strategic asset.
The number of flights in Europe has increased between 1990 and 2014 by about 80% and is steadily growing. However, there is a variety of adverse environmental and health impacts associated with the operation of airports that may be considered material especially for residents of communities in the vicinity of airports and the surrounding ecosystems.
The management of an airport’s interface and the relations with local people is of vital importance to each and every aviation stakeholder – and not just the airport operator.
Gaining wide community support for the benefits that growth would bring is essential in determining an airport’s future. It is in fact widely recognized that the perception of an airport’s surrounding communities can significantly affect an airport’s throughput, capacity-use, growth and operational efficiency and hence the positive sustainability impacts that a successful airport brings.
Some airport operators have actively engaged with surrounding communities over many years – and yet the attitude of the local community can still appear to be generally negative. For example, according to EEA’s NOISE Observation & Information Service for Europe, the overall exposure to airport noise in Europe is less than for other transport sources. However, the annoyance experienced by people exposed to noise from this source is greater than for any other.
It is in fact rather easy for an airport to develop a reactive and rather negative relationship with the surrounding communities, despite their best efforts:
- Denying there is an issue – or relying solely on ‘artificial’ noise metrics to prove low-impact
- Operating on a ‘them-and-us’ basis or relying on politically appointed intermediaries
- Building unrealistic public expectations and then losing trust because the solution slightly misses the over-ambitious promised mark
- Becoming the public apologist and shield between the public and the aviation community instead of sharing the public platform and presenting externally as a united entity
- Reactively dealing with complaints, making excuses, trying to sell a marginal offset of adverse impacts as a positive step.
- Not stepping outside the safety of the airport perimeter fence
The above approach, whilst understandable, tends towards a negative character – minimise, reduce, excuse, avoid, constrain, penalise, etc.
Adopting a more holistic and positive approach can strengthen an airport’s position as a good corporate citizen and neighbor and can prove to be mutually beneficial for both the airport and the local community.
Many successful airports have developed a more proactive approach to dealing effectively with community relations issues, which can include:
- Jointly establishing collaborative operational/commercial stakeholder processes to develop mitigation and to jointly engage with the wider public.
- Establishing a community partnership approach bringing local people inside the perimeter fence to see what is going on – and what limitations apply.
- In partnership with aviation and external stakeholders, establish outreach centres in local communities to enter a dialogue outside of the perimeter fence.
- Working with amenity groups and public authorities developing a joint approach to optimise the future development of the airport.
- Fund independent audits (to be supervised externally) to validate sustainability performance and public reporting
- Conducting social surveys to ensure that the true local attitude is understood by decision makers
- Funding the independent quantification of the positive contributions of the airport to sustainability and ensuring that local people are aware of these.
- Targeting the positive impacts on local people to the extent possible:
- Establish partnerships with academia, business and the airport supply chain to optimise local economic and employment benefits and to enhance the development of local skills
- Bringing the airport supply chain to local areas in need of economic development
- Community sponsorship and targeted employment
- Developing and maintaining public amenities on airport land
- Funding independently produced educational packs for local schools and colleges to support debate and awareness about aviation.
- Targeted offers and discounts for local people.
Of course, this is just a small list of the kind of more positive approaches that can help establish a fruitful relationship with external stakeholders. Naturally, adverse impact mitigation should also still proceed in parallel to this approach and it is important to honestly and publicly acknowledge its limitations. People can handle bad news, especially if they know that everything possible is being done.
Progress won’t happen over-night – especially if there is long standing community skepticism. This more balanced “sustainability” oriented approach is however far more effective than simply trying to manage negative impacts.
The enablers for successful engagement with the local communities include:
- Understanding the complex airport sustainability-operational-cost chains
- Good research into local community attitudes and perceptions
- Accurate information on measured, modelled and perceived impacts – both positive and negative
- Awareness of relevant good practice at other airports.
- The engagement of the airport operational and commercial community through cost-effective collaborative processes
- Ensuring that sustainability is part of the culture of every service partner on an airport’s site – each airport employee can help to minimise risk and can be an airport ambassador
- The trust and engagement of externally supportive entities such as regulators, planning authorities, business leadership entities, tourism businesses and supply chain businesses, etc.
- And perhaps most importantly, effective and open community communications channels and processes.
The aim is to establish a community perception of the airport as a mutually beneficial asset. One that is seen to be strategically valuable in delivering positive sustainability benefits locally; and, that can be trusted to do all it can to minimise negative airport impacts to the extent possible.
ENVISA has the skills and experience to make this a reality for your airport. We conduct independent, transparent and neutral assessments to support airports and communities in establishing relationships based on cooperation and open, fact-based communication and achieving their mutually beneficial goals.
 European Aviation Environmental Report, EASA, 2016 (https://www.easa.europa.eu/eaer/)