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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: The Metropolitan Airports Commission Flying Higher on Sustainability

Patrick Hogan, Tim Nixon

24 Sep 2018

“The drive for efficiency and sustainable decision making is also key to our bottom line, leading to lower energy and operating costs, operational innovation, and community support for airport operations and improvements.”

The Minneapolis-Saint Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) received the 2017 Environmental Achievement Award for Innovative and Special Projects from the Airports Council International.  In this piece with Patrick Hogan, Director, Public Affairs & Marketing at MAC, we unpack the many and growing economic benefits the Commission is realizing through innovation and sustainability.  Perhaps most impressive is the forward-leaning work to measure and manage greenhouse gas emissions, both at the airport itself but also in partnership with the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration.  Tim Nixon, Managing Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability.


Tim: Why does the MAC initiate new sustainability projects?

Patrick: The Metropolitan Airports Commission owns and operates a system of seven airports – key public assets, some of which are located in heavily populated areas of the metropolitan community. In the process, each year Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport alone generates nearly $16 billion in economic activity for the region and connects people, goods and businesses around the globe. We’re proud of the fact that we do so using money generated from fees and rents paid by users of our airports, not income or property taxes.

But there are other costs to the community: airplane noise, greenhouse gas production and the potential for impacts to soil and water. We have an obligation to our neighbors and to the region to manage our resources responsibly. In that sense, investments in sustainability are a cost of doing business.

But the investments are much more than that. The drive for efficiency and sustainable decision making is also key to our bottom line, leading to lower energy and operating costs, operational innovation, and community support for airport operations and improvements. Sustainability is smart business. And it helps maintain the public’s trust in us, which is vital to any organization, but particularly imperative for an entity like the Metropolitan Airports Commission that exists to serve the public interest.

Tim: What are a few examples of your most successful projects?

Patrick: The Metropolitan Airports Commission has a long history of environmental stewardship, dating back decades. We’ve had success with recycling, green roof installation, daylighting and other sustainable design elements, and numerous other sustainability initiatives – in particular energy conservation and greenhouse gas emission reductions. I’d like to highlight a few of our energy-related sustainability programs:

Energy Conservation and Renewable Power

The first is energy conservation and renewable power generation. The MAC developed its Energy Conservation Program in 1998 to reduce energy costs and emissions. The program is self-funding, with energy cost savings returning our investment in conservation. We work in partnership with utilities like Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy on pilot programs that increase the efficiency of existing systems and reduce our energy use.

Examples of projects we’ve undertaken include: purchasing flexible fuel, hybrid and electric vehicles; installing electric vehicle charging stations for customers’ use; creating plug-in locations for aircraft ground support equipment, reducing use of diesel vehicles; working with hub-carrier Delta Air Lines to facilitate purchase of electric bag tractors, belt loaders and push-back tractors; and amassing 1 million data points in our energy management system, increasing onsite efficiency and system intelligence.

The most visible project, though, was installation of 4.3 MW of solar power generation capacity atop MSP International Airport’s parking ramps, together with conversion of 7,700 metal halide light fixtures in the parking ramps to long-lasting, energy efficient LED lighting technology. At the time we launched the solar power generation project, it was the largest in Minnesota. It is still the largest building-mounted solar project site in the state. In 2017, the solar arrays generated more than 3.1 million kilowatt hours of electricity, all of which was used on-site to help power MSP International Airport with clean, renewable energy.

The solar and lighting project is a win for us financially as well as environmentally. Over the 20-year life of the project loan, the project is expected to produce a net benefit of just under $2 million. The real net benefit comes in years 21 through 30. In its third decade of operation the project is expected to produce $11 million in benefit – and our hope is that the system will continue to function beyond that timeframe.

Our Energy Conservation Program as a whole has paid off in numerous ways. Since 1998, it has saved more than 40 million kilowatt-hours of electrical usage and reduced energy consumption at MSP Airport by 30 percent. The program saves $5.4 million a year in expenses for natural gas, diesel, backup generator fuel, cooling and steam. And it has generated more than $3.6 million in utility company project rebates.

Reducing Airport Carbon Emissions

The second sustainability area involves reducing the airport’s carbon footprint.

The premier association in the airport industry globally is Airports Council International. That association has separate chapters for different parts of the world. The MAC is a member of Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA).

In 2014 ACI-NA launched an Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA) Program for member airports. It’s a program that was initially developed in 2009 by ACI-Europe. The program is aligned with the GHG Protocol and ISO 14064 principles and has become the carbon management standard for airports.

It offers four levels of accreditation.

Level 1 is focused on mapping an airport’s carbon emissions. It involves preparing a third-party-verified map of carbon emissions within the airport operator’s direct control. To achieve Level 1 accreditation, an airport also must show evidence of its commitment to emissions reduction. MSP Airport achieved Level 1 accreditation in 2016, having mapped its carbon emissions in base years 2014 and 2015.

Level 2 is focused on carbon reduction. It adds to Level 1 requirements the development of a carbon management plan, complete with a carbon emissions reduction target. For MSP Airport, we set a target of reducing emissions under our control by 15 percent on a per-passenger basis by 2020 from the baseline set in Level 1, which is the average achieved in 2014 and 2015. That’s an aggressive target, but we’re confident we’ll be successful based on the improvements and investments we are making.

MSP achieved Level 2 accreditation in 2017. To maintain that accreditation, we must achieve year-over-year reductions in carbon emissions from sources under our control. This is not a one-and-done program. It’s an ongoing commitment to reducing CO2 emissions. Our carbon management plan guides our efforts. The document requires triennial review to keep it current and relevant.

Level 3 is focused on optimization. It adds to Level 2 requirements the development of a Stakeholder Engagement Plan and inclusion of Greenhouse Gas Protocol scope 3 emissions – from sources outside an airport operator’s direct control. Achieving Level 3 will require collaboration and commitment throughout the businesses that comprise our airport community, not just across Metropolitan Airports Commission departments. We have a long history of working with our business partners at the airport to achieve many goals, including reduced emissions. So we’re hopeful we can be can achieve Level 3 status in the future.

Level 4 is the ideal: neutrality. It requires achieving carbon neutrality for emission sources under the airport operator’s direct control. Typically that involves purchase of offsetting credits.

Greenhouse Emissions Reporting

The third sustainability effort is our annual Greenhouse Emissions Report, an important tool for tracking and planning a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. That MAC is not required to develop the report, but we have chosen to do so since 2007.

Beginning in 2016, the report has calculated greenhouse gas emissions dating back to 2014 using methods compliant with Airport Carbon Accreditation standards. It tracks annual greenhouse gas emissions associated with MSP Airport against the 2014-2015 baseline established in the Airport Carbon Accreditation program.  The report tells us how we’re doing in achieving our ACA and Carbon Management Plan goals. Specifically, the report tracks emissions against: Scope 1 sources, which include vehicles, heating and cooling units, snow melters, emergency generators and firefighting training; Scope 2 sources, including emissions from off-site generation of electricity we purchase; and Scope 3 sources, covering all the other sources we had been tracking in our Greenhouse Emissions Report prior to aligning it with Airport Carbon Accreditation standards.

The report is a great tool for measuring progress toward our target of achieving a 15 percent per passenger reduction in carbon emissions by 2020.

Optimized Profile Descent

The fourth sustainability area is Optimized Profile Descent. It sounds complicated, but it’s not.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which controls the national airspace, has an initiative called NextGen. It is an effort to modernize the nation’s air transportation system and make flying even more safe, efficient and predictable. It’s a critical program, given the growth in demand for air transportation.

One element of NextGen is what is known as an Optimized Profile Descent, or OPD. Traditionally, when pilots are descending toward an airport, they pull back on the throttle to descend, power up again to level off, pull back on the throttle again to descend some more, throttle up again and repeat the process numerous times, essentially descending in steps rather than continuously. In Optimized Profile Descents, pilots keep the throttle pulled back to near-idle conditions for a continuous descent to the airport.

By keeping the throttle pulled back, pilots using OPD reduce fuel consumption and the greenhouse gas emissions related to fuel burn. It’s a great program from a sustainability standpoint. The problem we faced in assessing it was that there was no methodology in the industry for measuring the local impacts of OPD.

We discussed the issue with members of the MSP Noise Oversight Committee, a MAC advisory group comprised of an equal number of airline and community representatives. The committee wanted us to find a way to measure OPD impacts. So we got together with representatives from airlines – specifically Delta Air Lines, Endeavor Air and Sun Country Airlines – as well as the FAA to discuss a strategy. Ultimately, it involved developing a methodology and creating an application into which we input millions of data provided by the airlines and the FAA. Ultimately, we became the first airport operator anywhere to be able to measure local benefits of OPD. The OPD Fuel Burn and Emissions Reduction Analysis Application can be used by airports throughout the nation in measuring benefits of OPD locally.

Our findings using the application were impressive. We estimate that use of OPD saved nearly 2.9 million gallons of jet fuel in 2017 and reduced CO2 emissions by more than 28,000 metric tons. Since March 25, 2015, when OPD was put place at MSP, we estimate the descent procedure has saved almost 10 million gallons of fuel and reduced CO2 emissions by more than 97,000 metric tons.

We have demonstrated that OPD is good for the airlines financially and a win for air quality as well. In so doing, the Metropolitan Airports Commission received the 2017 Environmental Achievement Award for Innovative and Special Projects from the Airports Council International for development of the OPD measurement application.

Tim: How are the projects funded?

Patrick: For us sustainability is multi-faceted; dozens of projects contribute to our overall goal of infusing sustainability into everything we do. Funding sources vary from project to project. In some cases, grants or credits come into play as well as rebates from energy companies. To a great extent, though, we pay for them using revenue we generate through operation of our airports – from rents and fees paid by the people and companies who use them. We recover our investment through savings generated from the projects, either through renewable energy generation or reduction in costs for fuel, energy or other resources.

Tim: Do they pay for themselves?

Patrick: Many do, particularly projects undertaken through our Energy Conservation Program. A number of our sustainability projects aside from energy conservation also are able to offset much or all of their cost through savings, such as reduced waste disposal costs.

Some of the smaller projects we undertake, such as development of the OPD application, aren’t undertaken with any expectation of a direct financial pay back. Rather, they are a way of expressing our commitment to sustainability and of demonstrating the results of that commitment. By investing in our airports, we invest in our staff, the community, the state and the region. The payback doesn’t always come directly to us: it can be measured in MSP Airport’s nearly $16 billion in economic impact to the area and the more than 80,000 jobs the airport supports. We’re a public agency, and it’s an investment in our collective future.

Tim: Have other airports or entities followed your lead?

Patrick: The airport industry as a whole is demonstrating a strong commitment to sustainability. Many of the Metropolitan Airports Commission’s leaders also hold leadership roles in key aviation associations and committees. It’s a very close-knit industry. We don’t have the same competitive constraints some private companies do. Rather, we are eager to share best practices and innovative approaches that can be applied across the industry.

From a sustainability standpoint, one airport might lead in one area while another airport leads in others. For example, MSP Airport is unparalleled in its noise mitigation program. But there are airports with different regulatory environments that are no doubt ahead of us when it comes to assets such as sustainable aviation fuel or electric vehicles on the airport campus. But we’re all looking for ways to improve our operations from a social, environmental and economic standpoint. And we look to each other for examples of approaches that might work for our own airports.

Tim: Do you ever receive criticism from the public, and if so, how do you deal with it?

Patrick: Most of the criticism we receive relates to aircraft noise. We don’t own or operate a single airplane, but we provide facilities for the people and businesses that do. So it’s imperative that we help address the noise issue to the extent we can.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission administers the most extensive noise mitigation program in the nation, both in terms of total spending on noise mitigation and of how far beyond the federal standard for noise mitigation our program goes. Since 1992, we have invested nearly $500 million dollars in noise mitigation, including providing sound insulation improvements for more than 15,000 single-family and 3,300 multi-family homes as well as 18 schools.

The FAA noise mitigation standard is for homes within the 65 DNL contour. DNL stands for day-night average sound level. Essentially, it’s the average noise level over a 24-hour period, with a 10-decibel penalty added to noise events that occur between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. Noise contours, which essentially outline the areas within a certain DNL noise impact area, are based on federal DNL modeling. Airports’ ability to fund residential sound insulation is based on those contours. The MAC’s residential sound insulation program extends well beyond the federal 65 DNL standard. We are the only U.S airport to provide mitigation way out to the 60 DNL noise contour around MSP.

Beyond the sound insulation program, we largely serve as facilitator, bringing together representatives from the community, the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration to identify and understand noise issues and to look for opportunities to address them operationally without sacrificing safety or efficiency. To that end, the MSP Noise Oversight Committee was established, consisting of equal numbers of community and aviation industry representatives. The NOC tracks noise trends, helps identify concerns, provides advice on potential solutions, and enhances communication and understanding regarding aircraft noise both in neighboring communities and in the aviation industry. The NOC is at the core of our ongoing efforts to reduce noise impacts to people living near the airport.

The fact that airlines are flying routes less frequently but on larger aircraft with more seats also is reducing noise contours around airports. And key to the future of aircraft noise, airlines are modernizing fleets with jet engines exponentially quieter than their predecessors.

We can’t eliminate aircraft noise. But working with the airlines, the community and federal air traffic controllers, we do our best to manage it.

Tim: What would you expect a leading airport authority to look like 20 years from now from a sustainability perspective?

Patrick: Our purpose will still be the same: safely and efficiently connecting people and goods around the globe. But how we do that will be vastly different.

New technologies, investments in innovation, and the results of programs like Airport Carbon Accreditation that are still in their infancy today will dramatically impact the airport sustainability landscape.

Airports and their business partners will provide a seamless experience for travelers from the time they book their flight to the time they leave town and return home again. Flight check-in and bag check will be almost fully automated, increasing efficiency. New technologies will make the security screening process both faster and more effective. Customer data will help airport operators understand traveler behaviors and desires and become better equipped to deliver what they want when, where and how they want it. Airline fleets will be equipped with much quieter, more fuel-efficient engines. Many of the vehicles using airport roadways will be automated; a large number will be electric, and those that aren’t will be much more fuel efficient. Airline ground handling equipment such as tugs, fuel trucks and power sources will similarly contribute far less CO2 into the atmosphere. And many airport operations will be carbon neutral or very close to it.

Living day to day, it’s easy not to notice how much sustainability progress airports and the aviation industry as a whole have made in the past 20 years. We’ll see that progress accelerate in the next two decades as technologies advance and the investments we are making in sustainability today become foundational to sustainable growth going forward.


Note: Rick King, a Thomson Reuters executive, serves as a MAC Commissioner.  MAC Commissioners are appointed by the Governor of Minnesota for four year terms. Rick is on year 8 (2nd term).

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