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ACI World director general, Luis Felipe de Oliveira, reflects on the importance of building back sustainably and the long-term benefits this can bring to airports.

I have had the opportunity to visit many airports in the world during my business and personal travel. The people that know me, know that I love to visit new places and meet different people. In addition to the time spent at airports’ formal touchpoints, such as check-in, immigration and security, I also enjoy the food and beverage area, shops, and good atmosphere. 

If anyone has had the opportunity to visit the new İGA Istanbul Airport, for example – as I did around two years ago – they would be in awe of its infrastructure and design. 

Besides its impressive size and connectivity, its layout was inspired by Istanbul’s unique history and culture. Its iconic control tower looks like a tulip, the countries’ national flower, and its
equally impressive main transit hall is moulded after the infamous Bosphorus Strait.

However, what is hidden behind the beautiful façade is an even more inspiring tale: one of sustainable infrastructure and design. 

İGA Istanbul Airport was indeed planned and developed with considerable input from the results of an extensive climate adaptation study, conducted at the very beginning of the airport’s development project. The study demonstrated the implications that inaction may have on its infrastructure, operations, and business continuity – leading to the prioritisation of building resilient and sustainable infrastructure.

At a time when airports and the industry are rebuilding, İGA along with many other leading airports in the area of sustainability, can serve as crucial examples of ways in which we can “build back better”.

And while airports have suffered massive financial losses due to the pandemic, they continue to persevere and place sustainability at the core of their recovery strategies. Airports, like every other industry, have only three options: to initiate, maintain, or enhance their sustainability commitments.

Building back sustainably: the benefits

So, beyond the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, airports’ focus is to provide sustainable long-term growth for the industry, which will need increased airport capital investment in new infrastructure and optimising existing facilities.

ACI World’s Global Outlook of Airport Capital Expenditure study indicates the airport industry’s current financial shortfall poses significant challenges to the modernising of infrastructure to improve sustainability and resilience, which will be required if passenger demand into the future is to be met. 

Specifically, approximately $2.4 trillion in airport total capital investments will be needed to address the long-term trend in passenger demand to 2040.

But as the İGA Istanbul Airport example has shown, infrastructure – perhaps now more than ever – must be intertwined with sustainability. In terms of funding, many governments are tying environmental commitments to economic relief packages, and airports that are investing in sustainability measures could gain easier access to this type of government support. 

Both public and private finances are increasingly becoming tied to sustainability ratings and climate action, such as in bond finance. For example, in February 2020, 122 institutional investors, with
$5.96 trillion in collective assets under management, issued a set of expectations from the aviation industry, including the need to establish roadmaps towards net zero emissions by 2050.

ACI World recently published the industry’s long-term carbon goal whereby the world’s airports are committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. To realise this, additional green capital financing will be needed. ACI World believes that to fully realise positive economic, social and environmental outcomes, innovative approaches, appropriate incentives as well as flexibility in organising and securing financing – such as green bonds or public-private partnerships – are required.

Furthermore, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that preparedness is crucial. While the pandemic is at the forefront of the world’s priorities, climate change continues to be our number one threat, both to the industry and humanity. 

Sustainable infrastructure and design can help reduce further risks and increase resiliency. Building up resilience in infrastructure and operations reduces risks and can avoid damage, including potential risks and damage associated with climate change. For instance, developing guidelines for low-lying coastal runways and strengthening requirements for potential runways can avoid potential damage from sea-level rises and disruptions to operations. 

The bottom line is that sustainable recovery can help airports to develop more balanced business models that incorporate all three aspects of sustainability (social, environment and economic), which can increase public trust; attract public and private investment; reduce risks and costs; increase efficiency; build resilience; and ensure that the social and economic benefits of aviation are achieved. For instance, this can be done by integrating together the airport’s strategic, climate, social  and capital plans.

The power of imitation: sustainable best practice, case studies and toolkit

ACI World has launched comprehensive guidance to help airport executives incorporate sustainability at the core of their strategies as they work towards long-term recovery: the ACI World Sustainable Recovery Best Practice and the ACI World Sustainable Recovery Case Studies.

The Best Practice guidance highlights the advantages of incorporating sustainability in recovery plans and provides a table of best practices and examples of action under three pillars of sustainability and governance – which airports worldwide should consider while developing their own sustainable recovery plans. A step-by-step approach to building such a plan is also included.

What’s more, as a companion to the Best Practice guidance, the Case Studies document provides successful examples from seven airports under the three pillars of sustainability. The case studies highlight sustainable alternatives for airports to consider while they plan for recovery in the short, medium and long-term. They also exemplify that while many of the good practices from before the pandemic remain valid, the post-COVID-19 world may require different approaches.

We recognise that every airport is part of its own distinct environment with its own challenges to consider. While there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to the sustainable design of airport buildings, there are several worldwide eco-design themes and areas that have become prevalent in airports. 

Airports can also make use of the ICAO Design of Airport Buildings, as part of the ICAO Eco-Toolkit, a project actively supported by ACI.

The Eco Design of Airport Buildings explores the environmental and resource-efficient operation and management of infrastructure taking into account the entire planned lifecycle of the development – again, particularly relevant to airports’ resiliency to effects of climate change. 


It may be natural to at times be pessimistic about or overwhelmed by the challenges airports and the industry face, and even more so when we consider the wider threat of climate change to the planet. It may also be natural to question government and industries’ true commitment to sustainability. 

However, when we see all the tangible ways that airports have stepped up to the plate with concrete sustainability strategies, business objectives, and project implementations, we see how our industry can be a powerful contributor to the socio-economic wellbeing of communities and regions worldwide. 

We have been mindful and active in reducing our environmental footprint for decades and this has only heightened in recent years. I invite our members and all airport stakeholders to explore our advocacy work, guidance material and tools, and to learn about the many ways in which ACI and our members are bringing sustainability at the heart of growth.

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