Sea-Tac's Green Programs Run the Gamut From Food Donation to Flight Procedures

Kathy Scott
Published in: 

Airport officials who insist that environmental programs are a) too expensive; b) disruptive to operations; c) largely ineffective; or d) all of the above could learn a lot from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). Last year, it handled 34.8 million passengers while maintaining more than a dozen green initiatives, and in the process further solidified its position as one of the industry's strongest environmental leaders.  

In September, SEA became the first North American airport to earn certification from the Airports Council International (ACI) Airport Carbon Accreditation Program, an independent assessment of airports' efforts to measure, manage and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The program was initially launched in Europe in 2009 and then spread to Asia-Pacific in November 2011 and North America this fall.

SEA's accreditation is formal recognition of the airport's success in reducing emissions via energy-efficient operations and the use of low-carbon electricity throughout the past three years. During that time, SEA has saved the same of amount of energy typically consumed by 700 single-family homes per year. And from all indications, the airport is far from done.

Projects: Environmental & Sustainability Initiatives
Location: Seattle-Tacoma Int'l Airport
Focus: Cost-effective projects; tangible results
Sample Programs: Electric charging stations for ground service vehicles; pre-conditioned air for parked aircraft; food donation program; new flight paths for specially equipped aircraft; alternative-fuel rental car buses; off-aircraft trash & recycling; free charging for customers with electric vehicles
Results: Reduced carbon emissions 8% in 3 yrs
Recent Recognition: Level 2 Certification from Airports Council Int'l Airport Carbon Accreditation Program

"Next year, we expect to go even further in the certification as part of our Century Agenda goal to reduce aircraft-related emissions by 25% at Sea-Tac and 50% overall at the Port of Seattle," said Stephanie Bowman, co-president of the Port of Seattle Commission, in a printed statement. 

No Stone Unturned

In addition to a history of environmental firsts, SEA has a wide range of noteworthy current projects. This year, for instance, it provided travelers with 48 electric vehicle charging stations - more than almost all other North American airports.

According to, the number of plug-in electric cars is on the rise in the United States. With new brands gaining acceptance and more than 87,000 units already sold this year, some planners predict that airports will need to incorporate charging stages as a practical move, regardless of their philosophical or business stance on environmental issues.

Beyond providing space in its passenger parking garage, SEA is also facilitating the transfer from gasoline to electric power on its ramp, for ground service equipment. Alaska Airlines has been making the switch, and SEA installed electric charging stations to provide electricity at very low rates. The crossover to electric is projected to save Alaska Airlines an estimated $300,000 in fuel costs each year and reduce greenhouse emissions by 1,000 metric tons annually.

The $31 million airside electrification project was funded by a partnership of the Department of Energy, Western Washington Clean Cities Coalition, the FAA's Voluntary Airport Low Emissions Program (VALE) and SEA. When fully operable, with 600 converted ground service equipment vehicles using the stations, the program is expected to save nearly 1 million gallons of fuel per year, $2.8 million in fuel expenditures per year (assuming a price of $3 per gallon) and 10,000 tons of greenhouse gases.   

Elizabeth Leavitt, director of Aviation Planning and Environmental Programs at SEA, notes that developing strategies with tangible financial benefits has been one of the best motivators in getting airlines on board with the airport's green programs.

"We have stayed focused on cost-effective environmental projects," explains Leavitt. Over the past decade, she and her team have maintained a resolute focus on combatting inefficiencies while decreasing SEA's carbon footprint, noise pollution, output of greenhouse gases and solid waste disposal.  

A food donation program, for instance, helps concessionaires send unpurchased pastries, sandwiches, salads and other airport mainstays to a local food bank instead of throwing them out. SEA installed two large refrigerators in a designated room within the main terminal and encourages restaurants and retail stores to place good-quality, non-expired food there at the end of each evening. At SEA's request, a local food bank picks up the donations and distributes them to those in need.

By this time last year, airport businesses had donated more than 110,000 pounds of food to the community - roughly the same weight as one-third of an unloaded Boeing 777, noted local media.

Significant participation from concessions partners HMSHost and Hudson News has further bolstered the program. SEA tenants currently donate enough food items to provide more than 540 meals a week to the hungry. 

Then & Now

A fuel hydrant system project was one of the first full-scale endeavors undertaken by Leavitt and her team, when SEA's environmental division was formed in 2005. By carrying fuel from the fuel farm to underground manifolds for delivery to each passenger aircraft gate, the system removed 16 fuel tanker trucks from the airfield, reduced petroleum use by 95,000 gallons and decreased annual carbon dioxide emissions by 1,000 tons.

More recently, SEA has partnered with FAA and Alaska Airlines on the Greener Skies Project, a program that is reducing fuel consumption and pollution through new flight procedures. The program allows specially equipped airplanes (those with required navigation performance) to descend more efficiently into SEA using computer-generated flight paths and advanced GPS technology. 

According to FAA research, the program is saving airlines $5 million per year through reduced flight time and fuel use. The new flight procedures were also found to reduce air and noise pollution for many, if not most, neighborhoods in the region. SEA's greenhouse gas emissions are consequently estimated to decrease by 15,600 tons per year.

Another initiative that continues to earn long-term benefits for SEA and its airlines is the airport's off-aircraft trash/recycling program. In 2010, SEA installed large-capacity compactors with computer devices that monitor trash levels and alert waste haulers when pick-up is needed. Placing an equal-size computer-equipped compactor for recyclables next to each trash unit was the airport's way of reminding service crews to recycle as much material as possible.

According to airport officials, the system's benefits far outweigh its price tag. By using large-capacity compactors (each with a capacity of 30 cubic yards) and leveraging computer technology to increase hauling efficiency, SEA provides airlines with cost-effective trash disposal and free recycling. Fewer hauling trips reduce ramp traffic, which, in turn, improves safety and decreases greenhouse gas emissions. Each year, the system helps airlines recycle approximately 200 tons of material - roughly 10% of SEA's overall airfield waste.  

Leavitt credits her staff for its focused efforts to find funding for the numerous projects, and highlights the VALE program as one of SEA's most significant sources to date. VALE, for instance, helped the airport purchase pre-conditioned air units, which allow pilots to save fuel by turning off their secondary engines immediately after parking at the gate. Pre-conditioned air units continue to heat or cool passenger cabins after aircraft power down. (See our November/December 2012 issue for more details.)


Despite SEA's lineup of environmental programs and initiatives, Leavitt notes that there could be more. That said, she is quick to emphasize that the key to "going green" is staying focused and true to a long-term vision.

The team at SEA consistently focuses on projects that will be supported by airlines and vendors, Leavitt specifies. Consequently, she often reminds airport personnel that although some green projects include up-front costs, many will create savings that last for years.

"When we can identify projects that are good for the environment and good economically, we can work toward becoming a truly sustainable airport," she explains.

Some in the industry link SEA's overall eco-success to the leadership of its managing director, Mark Reis, who earned a bachelor's degree in environmental studies at Western Washington University before proceeding to graduate school at Harvard University. 

Others cite the strong culture of environmental stewardship within Washington, a state known for its robust agriculture and billion-dollar salmon industry. Operating in a region where so many livelihoods rely on the long-term health of the land and water may, indeed, help inspire SEA's environmental vigilance.

Whatever the motivation, it's hard to argue with SEA's record of action and results.


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