The Impact of Airports on the Environment in the USA Essay

AbstractAir travel, though an integral part of modern life, is increasingly being associated with a range of socially damaging and environmentally devastating side effects. Much of this environmental and social damage occurs at airports, which, by enabling travel, trade, tourism and commerce, play a vital role in the social and economic life of societiesSocial activists and civic groups have in recent years taken up these issues with increasing intensity, likening it to breach of ethics and social and environmental responsibilities. This research study attempts to investigate the nature of ethical and social problems being caused by airports, as well as their possible solutions.1. IntroductionOverviewThe number of airports that a country has sometimes reveals more about the competitiveness and affluence of a society than other, more publicized, economic indicators.

To illustrate, The USA has close to 15,000 airports servicing 300 million people, while comparative figures for China stand at 486 airports for a population of 1.3 billion. Today, as the Chinese economy shoots towards superpower status, the volume of air travelers and the number of airports are increasing exponentially.

Even as numerous airports are either under construction or in the process of expansion in China, daily flights handled at Beijing airport have gone up to approximately a thousand per day; a tenfold increase in just five years. Airports are at the very heart of today’s global village. They form an integral part of the infrastructural core, responsible not just for promoting travel and tourism, but for far reaching economic and social progress. (Schalk, 2002)The explosive growth in air traffic in the United States has increased pressure on existing airport facilities and necessitated the implementation of huge expansion plans. Increasing air traffic, which is expected to continue to grow at 5 to 6 % every year despite the financial crisis, puts enormous strain on airport infrastructure and leads to their expansion in terms of utilization of space, number of runways, airport employees, flights handled, garbage generated and similar other factors.

The growth of airports results in far reaching changes upon surrounding areas. While it undoubtedly leads to a host of economic benefits, it also gives rise to specific social and environmental problems, some of which have the potential to disturb the lives of local communities deeply.The negative impact of airport growth on the environment, and social and community life has become a widely debated ethical issue in the USA. As in most cases that involve the environment and local society, this issue has also become deeply polarized. A high decibel nationwide debate is raging on various public platforms, in the press and in other media, on the implications of increasing or expanding the number of airports in the country.Determination of Research ObjectiveThe last two decades, especially the period that commenced with the falling of the iron curtain and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, has been one of sharp growth in global business, and international travel and tourism. The accompanying growth in international and domestic travel has led to vastly increased pressure on existing airports.

This is equally true of the USA,, which has always been a global hub for business in high end services, retail and tourism. A number of major airports in the USA, like, for example, Chicago, are in various stages of expansion, in anticipation of further increases in passengers, freight and flights. The establishment of new airports, and expansion of existing ones, can significantly affect the surrounding environment, as well as the lives of people who live in nearby areas. While the development of airports leads to substantial growth and development of the local economy, it also results in far reaching environmental damage, caused by usage of agricultural or greenbelt land, generation of waste, increase in levels of noise and pollution of water and air. Most of these developments can also have adverse effects upon the mental and physical health of people who live in nearby areas and have given rise to serious ethical issues.It is the objective of this research project to study the nature of social and ethical problems connected with the running of airports, their impact on the local and larger environment, and what can be done to reduce or control their negative effect.ResearchThe Impact of Airports on their SurroundingsAirports affect their surrounding environment in wide and far-reaching ways.

While they usher in a range of economic benefits by providing employment to large numbers of people who directly work in the airport premises, they also create a localised business area within the airport containing numerous shops and restaurants, in which local businesses can participate. Furthermore, development of airports results in significant inflows of investment and growth in business, commerce and employment. This has a ripple effect and leads to the establishment of hotels, restaurants, shops and commercial establishments that spring up over time to meet the growth in demand.“Airports facilitate economic growth at a regional and national level but also act as magnets for a wide range of economic activities. This wider economic role of airports is known as the catalytic impact, arising from the effect that air service accessibility can have on the region served by the airport.

The mechanisms through which it operates relate largely to enhancing business efficiency and productivity by providing easy access to suppliers and customers.” (Graham, 2003)In addition to inducing new businesses to come in from outside and catalysing overall economic activity, airports play a direct role in promotion and development of both inward and outward tourism, one of the most important business sectors of the USA. Very obviously, the numerous economic developments that accompany and follow the establishment and expansion of airports play a key role in furthering the economic advancement of the surrounding region. Any announcement regarding the expansion or establishment of airports inevitably results in a jump in real estate prices in the region, and correspondingly in the net worth of local land and real estate owners.

Despite these economic benefits, there is also a very significant downside. Airports give rise, directly and indirectly, to a host of environmental problems, capable of upsetting the lives of nearby residents and of degrading the surrounding ecosystems. These disturbances arise because of various factors, namely (a) the environmental and social degradation caused by large quantities of fuel emission, including greenhouse gases from aircraft and increased motor traffic, (b) the sharp increases in levels of noise with their debilitating effect upon the lives of nearby residents, (c) the gobbling up of large tracts of land and destruction of local wildlife, habitat and heritage, (d) local water pollution caused mostly by the use of deicing chemicals in airports and (e) the generation of large amounts of waste, which need to be safely disposed.While some of these problems are common to other large infrastructural projects, maximum devastation, in the case of airports, is caused by the constant air, water and noise pollution, which not only continues without let up but increases with every passing year.

Some of these environmental changes even have the potential to cause serious psychological and health problems. Ed Ayres, in an article in World Watch (2001) states that studies have revealed that (a) rates of cancer, asthma, and mortality are sharply higher for people living near some airports, and (b) that children near airports have higher levels of blood pressure, stress hormones, and difficulty with learning to read. “The maintenance of airport runways, aprons and other areas is one obvious area where environmental impact can be felt. A variety of potentially harmful chemicals are routinely called for including herbicides, various pesticides and de-icers in addition to the emissions produced by the fleet of support vehicles and the demand for on-site electricity. Flight related factors, such as aircraft taxiing, de-icing, washing and maintenance also generate additional waste, wastewater and local air pollution, which contribute to the overall eco-debit. In addition, the greatest emissions from the airplanes themselves occur during take-off and landing – which, of course, tends to further localize the potential environmental damage in and around airports. Passengers transiting thought the terminals bring their own problems.

The shops, restaurants, toilets and waiting areas require heating, lighting, water, wastewater and waste services and the numbers of air travelers mean that these facilities are needed on a significant scale. Add to this the electrical cost involved in baggage handling conveyors, motorized walkways and the like and holidays or business travel can begin to look distinctly resource-hungry!” (Airports and the environment, 2008)The toxic discharge produced by airports and aircraft comprise of mainly six pollutants: nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide These releases have a significant effect on the already increasing problem of global warming as well as being dangerous for to people open to them.·         Nitrogen oxide emissions comprise of nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, and nitrous oxide. These can damage lungs as well as harm the immune system cells. The vapor trails that follow aircraft in flight contain the majority of these gases.·         Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), are hydrocarbons that cause skin irritation, breathing problems, as well as serious lung damage from long-term exposure.·         Ground-level Ozone, particles in the air that are produced by aircraft, as well as sulfur dioxide greatly affect human health, especially in the lungs. Asthmatics are more at risk from these emissions.

·         Carbon monoxide, even at low levels, can severely affect the central nervous system as well as cause heart related discomfort for those suffering from coronary heart disease. (Staffeld, 2008)Plans and Proposals to Limit Social and Environmental DamageThe dilemma facing society and policy makers stems from the essential needs for airports in modern society and the major social and environmental damage that they can cause. Civil rights activists who call for a halt to further expansion of airports and air traffic have very little to offer by way of solution.Developments in environment control technology and innovative practices by modern day airline and airport officials are however helping in bringing about some solutions to these vexing problems.A number of airports have taken a range of constructive measures to prevail over several of the possible dangers, ranging from checking air discharges to setting up on-site reprocessing services. Observing of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and especially carbon monoxide levels in the atmosphere allows local air pollution to be more efficiently modeled and controlled, while reprocessing waste and water brings about significant and concrete benefits. Reed beds have been proved effective in treating the run offs from deicing chemicals in an environment friendly manner and a number of airports in the United States have installed them successfully.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin group recently made a number of suggestions that are equally relevant to American airports:·         The first of these ideas relates to setting up of starting grids at the airports. This involves the towing of aircraft by small tugs to the starting grid to enable the pilot to turn the engines ten minutes before takeoff and shut those five minutes after landing.  Billions of tons of carbon emissions can be reduced. Virgin Atlantic believes the “starting grid” system would reduce fuel consumption before planes take off by between 50%-90%.

People living close to airports would also benefit from lower noise levels and cleaner air.·         Sir Richard believes that the adoption by all airlines of a slower and smoother method of descent could significantly reduce the amount of fuel burnt when planes come into land. The current approach favoured by most airlines involves planes descending in several steep steps that burn more fuel. (Branson urges cooperation on climate change, 2006)Airports in the US are also taking a number of steps to reduce environmental pollution and noise.Efforts to improve air quality include the provisioning of electrical power to run the electrical systems of parked aircraft, monitoring emission levels of motorized vehicles in the airport and the progressive use of gas powered vehicles inside the airport.

Airports are putting green commuting plans in place for local residents, which apart from encouraging reduction in use of petrol and diesel vehicles, also motivates citizens to use bicycles or public transport for commuting. Generation and disposal of waste, another area of major concern in airport projects, is being tackled with multidimensional approaches that incorporate careful purchasing, reduction of wastage, reuse of materials where possible, segregation and recycling, and lastly, responsible disposal. Airports like Chicago are implementing elaborate water management system that ensures drainage, treatment and disposal of waste water as well as spills. Other airports in the US are also implementing a slew of environment friendly measures.

·         Boston’s Logan International Airport has installed 20 wind turbines on the rooftop of the airport’s headquarters. Each turbine is expected to generate about 100,000 kilowatt-hours per year, about 3 percent of the building’s energy needs.·         Denver International and Fresno Yosemite are generating power from the sun.  Denver has installed 9,200 panels, which is expected to generate about 3 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year.·          Denver airport also plans to implement a carbon offset program for travelers. Fresno Yosemite installed 11,700 panels in July, which is expected to provide up to 40 percent of the airport’s electrical needs.·         Seattle-Tacoma airport composts the 143-tons of coffee grounds served by concessions per year, and will install garbage and recycling compactors later in the year.

Denver airport has also found a way to recycle de-icing fluid.·         Boston encourages cleaner driving by providing preferred parking and front-of-the-line privileges for vehicles that use cleaner fuel.·         Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson is installing new toilets that are expected to save 44 million gallons of water a year, about a 13 percent reduction in the airport’s water consumption.

(Airports Busy With Sustainability Initiatives, 2008)ConclusionThere is very little doubt that the aviation industry can and is causing serious damage to the earth’s environment. Airports, which act as nodes of the industry are instrumental in causing a substantial portion of the damage caused by civil and military aviation. “Thousands of airports will need to be expanded, or built, to handle the Federal Aviation Administration’s projected 45% increase in flights by 2020. And the growth, government agencies say, will generate more pollution, already a serious airport problem.” (Stoller, 2004, USA Today)It is evident that new thoughts and solutions will have to come into play to overcome the spectre of large-scale environmental damage, which can occur because of further increase in air travel and proliferation and expansion of airports.

Airport management companies, even though they have the best of intentions, have very little to offer by way of concrete long term solutions. Their efforts are, at best, limited to ways and means to restrict the amount of likely damage. In such difficult circumstances, it may possibly be a very good idea to listen carefully to the environmental groups and take action to slowdown expansion plans until significant corrective measures for control of the negative impact of airports on their surroundings are devised and implemented.ReferencesAirports and the Environment, 2008, Eco., Retrieved November 10, 2008 from busy with sustainability initiatives, 2008, Environmental Leader, Retrieved November 10, 2008 from www., E. 2001, Airports and Cities: Can They Coexist?. World Watch, 14, 23+Branson urges cooperation on climate change, 2006, Guardian unlimited, Retrieved November 10, 2008 from,,1881996,00.htmlGraham, A, 2003, Managing Airports, Second edition, Butterworth Heinemann, Burlington, EnglandSchalk, S. M.

(2002, June). In Plane View: Airport Expansion Is Still a Hot Topic. When It Comes to Airport Planning, It Helps to Be Far-Sighted. Planning, 68, 8+Staffeld, J, 2008, How Does Airport Pollution Affect the Environment, Retrieved November 10, 2008 from;