Aviation impacts on local air quality addressed in new report from UK industry group Sustainable Aviation

Aviation impacts on local air quality addressed in new report from UK industry group Sustainable Aviation | Sustainable Aviation,local air quality

Automatic air quality monitoring station at Heathrow Airport

Wed 18 Jan 2017 – Air quality in urban areas has become an increasingly contentious issue in the UK and arguments over expansion of air traffic capacity around London have centred on concerns over potential rising levels of local airborne pollutants. Industry group Sustainable Aviation (SA) has now published a paper on air quality at and around UK airports, and what the sector is doing to mitigate impacts. The group says aviation’s contribution to overall UK emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) is very small but acknowledges air quality levels around some airports exceed health-based target levels. Air quality is therefore a key priority for both government and the industry, maintains SA, and its paper lays out a range of initiatives being taken to reduce NOx and PM emissions, and suggests a number of areas where the right policy support could enable further reductions.


Nationally, reports SA, emissions of key air pollutants are falling and are below the government’s legally binding emission ceilings. However, over 600 locations across the UK have been identified by local authorities where health-based air quality objectives are not being met. Locations – which tend to be focused on urban areas, and follow motorways and main roads – that fail to meet objectives are designated air quality management areas (AQMAs). Only one airport, Heathrow, is within an AQMA, with four others – Birmingham, Edinburgh, Gatwick and Manchester – near to AQMAs.


Local authority air quality action plans (AQAPs) are required to ensure air quality objectives in a particular area where exceedances are occurring are met as quickly as possible. They serve as important regional strategies that primarily work to improve air quality but also offer a range of secondary benefits, such as public transport improvements and support for green spaces. Airports contribute to local policies, working alongside authorities to support AQAPs by introducing their own strategies and measures to reduce emissions at the airport.


According to SA, aircraft contribute 1% of UK NOx emissions and 0.1% of UK PM10 (particulates smaller than 10 micrometres in diameter) emissions. Total on-airport emissions are, it points out, slightly higher as they include emissions from other sources such as ground equipment, airport roads and car parks. A number of airports periodically produce air quality emission inventories that quantify emissions by source. The SA paper uses the most recent data from Gatwick and Heathrow to provide a broad overview of on-airport NOx and PM10 emission sources (see below). It says estimating aircraft emissions is particularly difficult, however, especially as they also take place up to 3,000 feet (or 1,000 metres) above ground level under the landing and take-off cycle.


Through the collaborative cross-industry Sustainable Aviation approach – whose members include airlines, airports, aerospace manufacturers and air navigation service provider NATS – a wide range of emission reduction initiatives have been implemented.


The paper provides examples of a range of best practice procedures and operations to mitigate emissions at UK airports. These include:

  • Reduced engine taxiing;
  • The use of electrical power and conditioned air by parked aircraft;
  • Improved coordination of aircraft movements to reduce delays and emissions from taxiing aircraft;
  • Training staff to drive airport vehicles more efficiently;
  • When safe to do so, pilots adjust power on take-off to reduce emissions and noise;
  • The use by airports of renewable energy technologies and more efficient boilers;
  • The replacement of diesel-powered vehicles and handling equipment by cleaner versions; and
  • Encouraging greater use of new generation, more efficient aircraft.


Airport surface access is an important contributor to air pollution and SA says a government focus on road transport emissions will be key to reducing overall UK emissions. Nationally, road transport contributed 32% of NOx and 18% of PM10 emissions in 2013. Depending on location, emissions from non-airport-related road traffic near to airports vary greatly, for example accounting for around 14% of NOx emissions in the vicinity of Gatwick, but 27% at Heathrow. At Gatwick and Heathrow, airport-related traffic contributes around 9% of airport NOx emissions and 38% of PM10 emissions.


Examples of action taken by some UK airports to reduce surface access emissions include:

  • Reducing the number of HGV journeys into airports by bulking up retail deliveries at consolidation centres;
  • Supporting the use of ultra-low emission vehicles through introducing electric vehicle charging points and hydrogen fuelling;
  • Investing in public transport to make access for passengers and staff easier and more sustainable;
  • Reducing emissions from staff commuting through flexible working, car sharing and cycling.


SA believes government can play an important part in creating a framework for well-connected airports, with high-quality, 24-hour public transport for passengers, airport staff and local communities.


SA says its member airports regard sharing information about air quality at airports to be important and all host airport consultative committees that have an independent chair and representation from local authorities and local public interest groups.


The paper, prepared by SA’s Air Quality Working Group, concludes by identifying four next steps to continue progress in reducing emissions:

  • Focusing on road transport and helping to improve surface access to airports;
  • Expanding low-emission vehicle policy support to specialist airport vehicles and equipment;
  • Providing policy certainty so that the private sector will invest in cleaner-burning sustainable aviation fuels; and
  • Ensuring R&D programmes continue to be supported during and after the process of the UK leaving the EU.


“I am excited by the diverse and extensive range of activities already underway throughout the UK aviation industry to address our direct and indirect emissions,” says the Chair of Sustainable Aviation, Ian Jopson, in the foreword to the paper. “The range of innovative projects currently in progress also gives longer term confidence that significant improvements are feasible. The challenge will be how we all work together to realise these. I look forward to developing the opportunities highlighted in this paper with government in the coming years.”


Roger Gardner, a member of SA’s Advisory Board, adds: “From being a lower priority topic for many airports, it is clear that air quality improvement is now embedded with all airports both as part of their sustainability strategy and community engagement work.


“Engine manufacturers have long been focused upon pollution reduction and that trend continues but, despite a gradually improving air quality situation around airports, there remains a strong health-based imperative to maintain and increase that push.”




Sustainable Aviation information paper – ‘UK Aviation and Air Quality’



On-airport emission sources for NOx (left) and PM10 based on emission inventories for Gatwick (2010) and Heathrow (2013) airports:








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