TRB Annual Meeting Takeaways: Aviation Sustainability

The Transportation Research Board’s 102nd Annual Meeting

The Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) 102nd Annual Meeting in Washington, DC was an exciting event that was attended by thousands of individuals from around the world. The meeting covered all subsets of Transportation, with workshops and sessions addressing topics of interest for policy makers, practitioners, researchers and more. With aviation being one of the largest transportation markets we serve, it is important that we continue to stay timely with emerging trends and concepts. As our federal government, states, and local communities continue to set new goals for sustainability, resiliency, and net-zero carbon emissions, it is fascinating to think about the rapid pace of innovation that is occurring and will continue to soar in the coming years.

Below are some key takeaways from the TRB’s 102nd Annual Meeting.

Airport Sustainability & Resiliency

The FAA defines Sustainable Actions as those that: “reduce environmental impacts; help maintain high, stable levels of economic growth; and help achieve “social progress,” a broad set of actions that ensure organizational goals are achieved in a way that’s consistent with the needs and values of the local community.” The FAA is working to build a net-zero sustainable aviation system by the year 2050. This touches all aspects of airports and there are various funding mechanisms that airports can utilize to help fund sustainability and resiliency initiatives.

Airports typically serve as the primary staging areas during and after natural disasters and provide essential transportation links for life preservation efforts and for responding to public health emergencies. As the climate continues to change, the sea level continues to rise, and the number of strong hurricanes and other natural disasters continues to increase, airports and airport planners need to be collaborating on how they can progressively become more sustainable and resilient (i.e., what actionable projects can be undertaken with the goal of positioning an airport to immediately restore service after such an event?). Many airports are reducing their reliance on traditional power grids by developing their own microgrids, often in collaboration with local utility providers, and installing solar farms. Therefore, if the traditional power grid is disrupted, the airport still has power and can continue to operate. Airports and communities are also conducting efforts to prevent prolonged flooding during and after major storms, to provide backup potable water supplies, and to harden facilities to make them less prone to damage.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) provides $15 billion in federal funding for airport infrastructure projects with key focuses on sustainability and modernizing infrastructure.

Make sure to talk to the FAA early and often about opportunities for improvements that can make your airport more sustainable now and in the future!

Forecasting

The FAA Aerospace Forecast Fiscal Years 2022-2042 projects U.S. domestic and international enplanements to potentially double or triple over the next 20 years (compared to 2021 levels). Forecasts are used by the FAA, state DOTs, and airports for a variety of purposes including in Airport Master Plans, environmental studies, Benefit-Cost Analyses (BCAs), and financial planning. A big focus at TRB’s 102nd Annual Meeting was based on post-Covid recovery and how to better plan for unexpected and prolonged impacts to air travel. Do we, as Aviation Planners, need to consider forecast scenarios in which air travel comes to a rapid halt? It is an interesting question to ask and to possibly explore with our clients.

The FAA also presented on Climate Change and Long-Term Demand Forecasts. As we continue to plan for and implement sustainable solutions, technologies, and infrastructure for airports, we need to consider how the airport, aircraft, and infrastructure may evolve not just during a traditional 20-year planning period, but possibly for a longer-term period that allows for consideration of future zero emissions aircraft propulsion and fueling technologies, electric vehicle charging stations, and a variety of other emerging technologies.

Sustainable Aviation Fuels

Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) are produced from several sources including agricultural wastes and residues (such as used cooking oils) and corn. Compared to traditional Jet A fuel, SAFs allow for reduced CO2 emissions and are generated from renewable sources and/or sources that would ordinarily wind up in a landfill/treatment facility. The FAA has a goal of producing and utilizing at least 3 billion gallons of SAF by 2030 and 35 billion gallons of SAF per year by 2050. Although, a potential obstacle may be the price of SAF, which today is nearly double the cost of traditional Jet A fuel. The FAA and other federal and state agencies are offering incentives to assist with the production and distribution of SAF to U.S. airports. Furthermore, in December 2022, the IRS issued a SAF tax credit of “$1.25 for each gallon of sustainable aviation fuel in a qualified mixture. To qualify for the credit, the SAF must have a minimum reduction of 50% in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.” All major U.S. airlines (American, Delta, Southwest, and United) are committed to utilizing SAF to be good stewards to the environment and reduce their CO2 emissions. SAFs are blended with traditional Jet A fuel and certified for use in turbine powered aircraft. There are no special requirements for airports to store SAF as it goes into the same Jet A tanks and is considered Jet A after it is blended and certified. Who knows? You may have flown on a commercial flight partially powered by SAF.

In all, sustainable aviation practices like SAFs, microgrids, solar farms and others are just the beginning. To continue progressing towards sustainable transportation, what tools do we as planners, engineers, consultants, etc. need to utilize for maximum support and ingenuity?

About the Author: Michael Kotlow, Senior Airport Planner; mkotlow@avconinc.com
Mr. Kotlow has worked within the aviation planning field since 2005, and has completed numerous projects for airports of all sizes throughout the U.S.  He is responsible for the production of aviation planning projects including master plans, airport layout plans, benefit-cost analyses, runway length analyses, noise studies, and various specialty studies.