With global air passenger numbers predicted to double by 2036, the world’s airport operators face the double challenge of managing demand for rapid growth while minimizing the environmental impact of their operations. Anthony Smith talks to the Ricardo infrastructure team that aims to help airports reconcile these seemingly mutually exclusive goals
Once the preserve of the rich and famous, air travel is now something that is not just accessible to the masses, but in many cases represents the most convenient and affordable means of medium and long-distance transportation. This process of democratization was kickstarted by a series of technical developments and pioneering business disruptors to the established model of the airline operations – from Freddie Laker’s Sky Train of the 1980s to the many low-cost carriers operating around the world today on both short- and long-haul routes.
Environmentalists might wish for this period of growth to soon come to an end, with high-speed rail increasingly replacing air travel for journeys of under 800 kilometres. But the uncomfortable truth is that rising incomes and demand from all parts of the world means that air travel is likely to increase significantly over the coming years. According to the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) forecast published in late 2017, passenger numbers are expected to increase to 7.8 billion in 2036, a near doubling of the 4 billion today. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the UK is expected to remain one of the world’s top five markets (measured in terms of passengers travelling to, from and within) behind China, the United States, India and Indonesia.
Peter Mulder is business area manager for infrastructure at Ricardo Energy & Environment, and explains the particular challenge facing UK airport operators:
“The UK is a densely populated and well-developed part of Europe, so environmental concerns are understandable with any new infrastructure development. Planning regulations and government targets place strict limits on the allowable levels of noise, emissions and the carbon intensity of the commercial operation of each airport. As such, there is a clear business incentive to make operations as sustainable as possible, to enable any desired expansion or development to proceed within these limits.”
While Ricardo provides services to airports in many parts of the world, the UK remains currently its largest market. In the UK there is a mix of major international hubs such as London Heathrow and Gatwick, larger airports such as Manchester and Edinburgh, and rapidly developing regional airports serving a range of sectors such as holiday charter flights, and low cost short haul destinations.
With demand growing, almost all operators have ambitions to expand, but in addition to focusing on their own operations they also need to be sensitive to changes affecting air travel more generally. “Until a few years ago, bigger was better in terms of aircraft design,” explains Mulder, “and the major growth in air travel seemed to be driven by the use of high-capacity airliners such as Boeing’s 747-400 and the Airbus 380 to provide hub-to-hub connections, with onward connections provided by smaller planes. In more recent years, however, the preference seems to be changing to a greater provision of long-haul point-to-point services, using lower capacity but more fuel-efficient products such as the Boeing Dreamliner and Airbus NEO. An example is the recent launch of the daily non-stop service from London Heathrow to Perth, Australia. In the light of this trend, we are seeing some airlines reconsider their aircraft purchasing strategies while airport operators may need to provide extra runway capacity to support a greater number of both short-haul and point-to-point long-haul flights.”
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