Fancy New Airports Can’t Fix the Most Harmful Part of Air Travel

They may actually make it worse

Future SKYCITY Hong Kong development design concept. Credit: Airport Authority Hong Kong.

YYou wouldn’t know it navigating the LaGuardias and Newarks of the world, but airports are getting bigger and fancier. As air travelers fly millions more miles every year, countries are turning away from the utilitarian facilities of decades past and toward awe-inspiring structures designed by celebrity architects.

The supersized airports of the future will have two things in common. The first will be their nature-oriented design — they’ll all be made of glass, soaked with light, filled with trees and other greenery. The second is that they will all help kill the planet.

In Beijing, for instance, the world’s largest airport will open next year. Designed by the late Zaha Hadid, its terminal will host 100 million passengers a year and occupy roughly the same area as Amazon’s HQ2. In Singapore, an all-glass structure built to resemble a giant jewel will also open next year. And in Mexico City, officials planned a $13 billion glass dome airport designed by Lord Norman Foster. (Citizens recently voted to pause construction on the project over cost concerns.)

Even the United States, where President Donald Trump has said airports resemble “third world countries,” has its own megaprojects in the works. Take Denver, where the new airport will contain its own small city, or New Orleans, where a new, light-filled terminal costing $1 billion will open next spring. In New York City, major renovations are underway to turn the city’s notoriously grim major airports into high-ceilinged architectural marvels.

These well-financed projects place an unprecedented premium on the comfort of the passenger, which they achieve by creating interiors replete with natural light, flowing water, and copious amounts of foliage. The new John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City will be filled with stately poplars, plus miniature versions of Central Park and the High Line; a new airport in Helsinki, Finland will feature wood-paneled ceilings opening up to the sun; and the Changi Airport in Singapore will contain a veritable rainforest. But these gorgeous terminals, well-intentioned though they may be, will have the secondary effect of greenwashing the large and increasing contribution the airline industry makes to climate change.

WWhen we think of climate change, we imagine cars spewing exhaust as they sit in traffic. But air travel accounts for a large and growing proportion of carbon emissions — one flight from Europe to Australia generates about the same amount of CO2 as driving a car for an entire year. And the negative impacts go beyond just carbon: International flights also release large quantities of more potent greenhouse gases like methane and ozone.

At the moment, air travel accounts for only five percent of global transportation emissions, but that could rise to more than 20 percent in the coming years as the industry grows unchecked and other sectors reduce their footprint. As low-cost airlines proliferate in Europe and the United States and a new middle class emerges across much of Asia, air travel is projected to double over the next two decades, with about 8 billion passengers expected fly in 2036.

Though we’ve known that airplanes are bad for the earth for decades now, neither the industry nor the international community has taken substantive steps to regulate airline emissions. In the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the countries involved exempted international air travel from regulation. This exemption was upheld in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The only major government to act on air travel emissions since has been the European Union, which tried to institute a carbon tax on intercontinental flights in 2012.

At the moment, air travel accounts for only five percent of global transportation emissions, but that could rise to more than 20 percent in the coming years as the industry grows unchecked.

The EU suspended the tax after threats of reprisal from China, the U.S., and other countries, but their stand brought the international community to the table again. In 2016, 190 nations agreed to regulate international air travel emissions starting in 2030 through a policy called “offsetting,” which adds a surcharge to the cost of one’s airline ticket and uses the extra cash to fund tree plantations, solar panels, and carbon sinks. But considering how fast the industry is growing, experts and onlookers say these reforms are nowhere near sufficient to curb emissions growth. Besides, experts don’t all agree that offsets are an effective policy in the first place: Individual efforts often have small impacts on the environment, and the policy as a whole shifts the burden of climate action from governments and companies onto travelers.

At least for now, then, airline emissions aren’t going anywhere but up. This is the result of decades of lobbying by the airline industry through international organizations like the International Air Transport Association. But the failure to regulate international emissions is also a tragedy-of-the-commons problem. Who should be responsible for dealing with the emissions generated by a flight from Shanghai to Los Angeles — China or the U.S.? No individual country has any incentive to hurt its own economy by tamping down air travel if other countries won’t, so the problem will remain intractable unless the entire international community acts on it at once. In the meantime, low-cost carriers like Europe’s EasyJet have made affordable plane tickets more accessible than ever.

Now, as demand for air travel continues to rise worldwide, building new and expensive airports has become a lucrative investment for developed and developing countries alike. Renovating a dilapidated airport, the thinking goes, can help revitalize a city, while a shiny new terminal can put a region or country on the map. Research has shown that new airports don’t exist in a vacuum, but rather create a cyclical relationship with the cities they serve, and contribute to an uptick in jobs, tourism, and economic output. Meanwhile, when existing airports reach capacity, traffic bottlenecks can lead to extreme delays.

But many planners believe that responding to growing demand with a “predict and provide” model — building a new airport when an existing one gets logjammed — is ultimately shortsighted, especially given that from-scratch airports can take decades to build. Instead, these planners recommend an approach centered around “demand management,” which means softening demand for air travel through such measures as congestion pricing for vehicles arriving at an airport, “slot auctioning” of airport landing spaces during peak hours, and investment in alternative modes of transportation. But because new airports have been shown to boost tourism, commerce, and employment, most cities and countries are loath to swallow such a bitter pill.

“It’s analogous to the fossil fuel industry,” said Jessica Green, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies regulation of the airline industry. “International air travel has become part of the composition of our lives, it’s become a huge source of jobs and a major target for capital investment. So degrowing it, if we ever do that, is going to be very costly.”

As cities and countries sink billions into gorgeous facilities that serve as tourist attractions in their own right, they’ll have less incentive than ever to sign on to regulations that would help cut down carbon. Beautiful and relaxing as they may be, these massive investments help close off the possibility for the large-scale change in the aviation industry that will become necessary as the window for averting climate catastrophe continues to close.

These gorgeous terminals, well-intentioned though they may be, will have the secondary effect of greenwashing the large and increasing contribution the airline industry makes to climate change.

Jonathan Massey, a principal designer at the architecture firm Corgan, one of the leading aviation architecture firms, says major aviation firms are trying to “green the airport” by making the terminals themselves as energy-efficient as possible, but notes that renewable power sources such as solar and wind power aren’t practical.

This glut of airport megaprojects has coincided with a shift in airport architecture, one that places passenger experience at the top of the design hierarchy. A 2013 report published by Gensler, one of the world’s most prolific architecture firms and a leader in airport design, noted that “more and more, airports are being designed or expanded as self-contained urban centers” and that the airports of the future “won’t just be green,” but “will also feel like an extension of nature.” Cities and countries will market new airports as attractions in their own right, not only because of their aesthetic beauty but because of the range of shopping and recreation they’ll offer.

“In the past, the experience of the passenger has definitely taken the backseat,” said Massey. “But now it’s becoming much more important — we’re not only adapting designs to new technology, but also the sophistication is rising beyond just making money. You see grand, really exciting facilities in a lot of different regions, especially in China and Southeast Asia.”

Corgan has conducted extensive research to figure out which design decisions can reduce stress for the average passenger, and found that for many people the best airport interior is the one that’s as close as possible to nature.

“As many plants as possible, good landscaping, tweeting birds, running water — those things help to lower people’s stress levels, if you use them in the right way,” said Massey.

Airport designers seem to be heeding his advice. Changi Airport in Singapore, for instance, will be stuffed with tropical trees and babbling brooks, and its glass ceiling means the building’s daytime light comes directly from the sun. New Orleans’s new terminal will center around a grove filled with palm trees and tall grasses. Gensler’s designs for new terminals in San Francisco and Seoul feature “recompose zones” after security lines, and the Seoul airport contains two parks as well as a butterfly habitat. Recently opened or soon-to-open airports in France, the Netherlands, and Thailand make extensive use of foliage as well.

This trend might seem at first like a series of cosmetic coincidences, but in fact it’s the logical endpoint of the industry’s unchecked growth: as profit margins grow and airports become a more lucrative target for public investment, they’ll be able to make more design decisions that go beyond mere cost-driven efficiency. In time, this will lead to airports where you might actually want to shop, eat, or even get an impromptu tan. These airports will be even more intertwined with the cities and regions around them, they’ll help to deepen our growing addiction to air travel. And chances are they’ll be filled with trees.

Reporter and researcher based in Brooklyn.

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