During the last decade, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) has amassed a host of awards for its eco-friendly programs. One recent accolade both punctuates and encompasses the entire lot: carbon neutrality, as recognized by the Airport Carbon Accreditation program of Airports Council International. (See sidebar for more information.)
In August, DFW became the first North American airport to achieve the highest level of the worldwide program, officially putting to rest its storied past of environmental challenges. Given the impressive accomplishment, it's easy to forget that sustainability wasn't always such an ingrained part of the Texas airport's culture. But its journey to net zero status was long.
Back in the 1970s, air quality tests associated with the Clean Air Act revealed that ground-level ozone levels in the Dallas/Fort Worth area exceeded national standards. Like many other urban centers, it was classified as being in non-attainment for ozone, primarily for emissions generated from mobile sources (vehicles). As a result, local authorities were asked to develop strategies to reduce a wide variety of vehicle emissions, and the airport came under scrutiny.
Project: Certified Carbon Neutrality
Location: Dallas/Fort Worth Int'l Airport
Partners: Airlines; FAA; EPA; TX Commission on Environmental Quality
Achievement Date: Aug. 2015
Accrediting Authority: Airport Carbon Accreditation Program of Airports Council Int'l
WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff
In the mid-1990s, DFW embarked on a new master plan to identify the infrastructure improvements needed to accommodate the region's growing demand for air service. At the same time, difficult economics prompted airlines to increase pressure on airports to reduce their overall costs.
Amid DFW's financially demanding conditions, attitudes toward environmental programs began to change, notes Executive Vice President of Operations Jim Crites. "We identified that while we needed to keep growing the airport, we were also working to reduce emissions and save money, all at the same time," recalls Crites, who joined the airport in 1995. "In that challenging environment, we came to realize everything that a holistic approach to sustainability could mean, and how we could use those concepts to meet all of our challenges."
These days, DFW has expanded its environmental practices from mere compliance to programs that link operational efficiencies and cost avoidances to boot.
One of the first substantial endeavors was DFW's clean fleet program, which essentially converted "dirty cars" to cleaner alternative fuels (compressed natural gas) and hybrid-electric technology.
Interim measures to convert airport fleets to compressed natural gas occurred through a collaborative program with the FAA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
DFW also focused on its rental car operations, consolidating two major rental car areas and their associated bus operations into one. "Since the majority of our regional emission issues were caused by vehicles, we thought by addressing our own vehicle emissions, we might enable other stakeholders within our region to reduce their vehicle emissions as well," Crites says. "By consolidating into one (facility) and having one bus fleet, (rental car providers) reduced their miles driven by over 50%. Then, we worked with them on getting the next level of engine technology to reduce their emissions."
Despite significant gains regarding vehicular emissions, the airport still wasn't where it needed to be, notes Crites. DFW consequently expanded its focus to the airlines, and once again the FAA provided the assist-this time in the form of grant funding to electrify bag tractors used on the ramps. The conversion significantly reduced the tractors' emissions and drove down operational costs.
"In doing so, (the air carriers) had a better operation and a lower cost of doing business," Crites relates. "That is what sold it for them."
Net Zero Heroes
Time and again, DFW managed to replicate the win-win scenario that linked increased operational performance with decreased cost and emissions. And word got out.
"Somebody would come up, asking, 'Can you improve my operation?' Then somebody else would come up, asking, 'Can you help me on my cost structure?'" Crites recalls. "It was one after another after another."
A cultural shift occurred and "sustainability" was no longer considered to be a four-letter word, but rather a welcome visage in the black column of the airport's ledger.
Crites and his staff became the unsung "heroes" as facilitators of that dialogue. In an evolutionary fashion, the links between sustainability and cost savings/operational efficiencies were optimized with more regularly captured data. This led to more informed decisions and a better understanding of both environmental impacts and opportunities to gain operational efficiencies.
Among other kudos, Crites credits his staff of "little matchmakers" for some of the most striking sustainability measures that have contributed to DFW's carbon neutrality effort, including the procurement of renewable energy for a net reduction of 44,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. DFW's electricity contract with the Texas General Land Office requires 40% renewable energy from Texas wind farms.
Facility optimization has also been a highlight, with approximately 18,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year reduced through a partnership with Texas A&M Energy Systems Laboratory to improve the electricity and heating efficiency of airport facilities.
These measurements, among others, were first discussed three years ago with the arrival of Sean Donohue, the airport's current chief executive officer. As the former chief operating officer of Virgin Australia, Donohue brought worldly environmental savvy to the table and encouraged the world's third busiest airport to pursue certification through the Airport Carbon Accreditation program, which recognizes increasing levels of carbon management, reduction and offsetting.
Level 1 "Mapping" and Level 2 "Reduction" were attained through the quantification and demonstration of DFW's decrease in emissions, explains DFW Vice President of Environmental Affairs Robert Horton.
"Our CEO really empowered us to pursue and evaluate this program, and when we really took a holistic view of all this data we were collecting, we realized we had absolutely been reducing the emissions-often exceeding national annual targets that are set," Horton notes. "We realized we were doing a great job."
Building on the momentum, DFW pursued Level 3, the "Optimization" step, of accreditation, which requires third-party engagement in carbon footprint reduction. Sustainable Programs Manager Ryan Spicer cites a program initiated with American Airlines in 2012 to illustrate the airport's engagement with its largest airline tenant.
"You must take a broader measurement view, which includes emissions from a broad scope of tenant activities," Spicer explains, noting electrification of ground equipment as an example. "Not only do you measure what they are doing, but you engage with them in a formal partnership.
"We were measuring emissions on a project-by-project basis because we had to, and then we realized that a lot of the good things we were doing were having a positive impact not just on our bottom line but also on our ability to measure emissions," he relates. "We started measuring emissions for the whole airport in terms of getting an idea of where we were and what our trends were over time, and because we were doing those things, we were able to have those conversations with our business partners and with our own internal departments. We started to realize we could make better decisions about what we're doing, and that built us up to the last level of the program."
In July, DFW applied for the highest level of accreditation: Level 3+, the "Neutrality" step, which requires airports to neutralize remaining carbon emissions-both direct and indirect-by absorbing or offsetting. In DFW's case, these efforts included procuring additional wind energy to meet all of the airport's energy demands. For vehicle emissions, DFW invested in certified carbon offsets traded on the open market. Level 3+ status was approved in August, after net zero emissions had been certified over the course of one year.
Despite the comprehensive scope of the airport's recent accomplishment, and all the work required to achieve it, DFW officials remain focused on the even longer-term journey ahead.
"Now the hard work begins, because we already set the bar," Spicer remarks. "We have to really be innovative and find ways to ensure we grow in response to the community growth in a manner that is sustainable. That is what it all comes down to."
Greening North America's Airports
The Airport Carbon Accreditation program is an industry-wide effort of Airports Council International (ACI) to help airports manage and reduce their carbon footprints. Worldwide, more than 170 airports are engaged in the effort, with participation rising steadily ever since the program began in Europe seven years ago.
In the past year, accredited airports collectively reduced emissions under their direct control by more than 206,090 tons of carbon dioxide-enough energy to power over 86,000 households for a year, note ACI officials.
The program certifies airports at four progressively stringent levels (see chart) via an independent administrator, WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff. To date, 26 airports have reached the highest level of accreditation: carbon neutrality for activities they directly control or can influence.
While Scandinavian airports dominate this group, one North America participant recently joined the eco-elite: Dallas/Fort Worth International.
As a whole, Europe has by far the highest participation rates, as the program has been available there the longest, but North America is showing impressive growth. Since the program launched here in 2014 with Seattle-Tacoma International leading the way, participation has more than doubled.
"Today, 20 North Americans airports have joined the Airport Carbon Accreditation program to lower their carbon footprint," reports ACI-NA President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin M. Burke. "Not only is this program setting our industry on a path toward continued success in innovation and sustainability, but it's also allowing North American airports to exceed their own organizational goals to better their communities. I applaud the efforts our industry has made to become better partners in the global aviation system and their communities."
The notable imbalance of carbon accredited airports-20 in North American airports vs. 113 in Europe-mirrors overall societal and regulatory trends of environmental awareness and action. Clearly, North America has plenty of work ahead; but it's heartening to see that its airports are on the job.
Airport Carbon Accreditation Program
Level 3+ Carbon Neutrality: Offsetting Direct & Indirect Emissions
Level 3 Optimiziation: Engaging Stakeholders to Reduce Emissions
Level 2 Reduction: Managing & Reducing Carbon Footprint
Level 1 Mapping: Tracking & Understanding Emissions
* New participant in 2015/16 program year