Electrifying Airports: Planning for the Ground Game

May 16, 2024

Authored by Will Handke, Managing Consultant

Reducing aviation emissions is challenging as batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, while effective for powering ground vehicles, still face limitations in meeting the needs of aircraft propulsion systems. Though recent advances have given glimpses at zero-emission airplanes, widespread adoption remains in the distant future. Given this reality, how can we begin to reduce aviation industry emissions today? Infrastructure Week and the passage of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2024 offer a timely opportunity to highlight how airports can electrify airport ground vehicles, which include vehicles and equipment that service both landside and airside operations at an airport. However, if this electrification is to occur, airports first need to plan.

The cliché that airports are akin to miniature cities is an accurate one. And like cities, airports host a mix of vehicle options, including cars, buses, and trains, as well as airport-unique vehicles such as baggage tractors, belt loaders, and pushbacks. Unlike most cities, however, at airports, these vehicles are used, maintained, and parked within a confined space. Also, they are refueled using shared infrastructure and are supported by concentrated workforces that can be rapidly re-trained. What’s more, airport vehicles operate around the clock, making them some of the more emissions-intensive vehicles in the United States. These unique aspects of airport vehicles make it possible to implement rapid and cost-effective zero-emission transition plans.

Effective zero-emission transition planning at an airport starts with a deep dive into its current vehicle fleet. This involves understanding the number of vehicles, their ownership (airport vs. airlines/contractors), and their operational areas (landside or airside). It's crucial to map fueling locations, the types of fuel used, and fuel consumption volumes. Additionally, vehicle age and daily usage patterns need to be documented, along with existing maintenance locations. By collecting this information, airport leaders can pinpoint the challenges, potential solutions, and associated costs of a zero-emission transition.

The next phase of zero-emission transition planning entails researching available zero-emission vehicle options and modeling their anticipated performance and costs. Ensuring operational continuity, resiliency, and safety are key. Deployment timelines must also be understood. These timelines should factor in existing vehicle replacement schedules, staff training timeframes, emission reduction regulations, and the time required for zero-emission infrastructure installation.

The final transition planning phase distills the whole process into a bankable plan that lays out the steps and timeline by which the airport will achieve zero emissions and summarizes the costs and benefits of the endeavor.

The recent passage of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2024 offers a significant opportunity to advance sustainable transportation within the aviation sector. Notably, the Act prioritizes airports that develop comprehensive management plans for zero-emission vehicles and equipment under the Zero Emissions Vehicle and Infrastructure Pilot Program (ZEV Program). It also supports the integration of current and future power needs into airport energy assessments and allows the use of Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding for airside energy projects.

These provisions signal a clear directive from Congress for the FAA to promote and prioritize zero-emission initiatives at airports. However, the Act alone is insufficient to implement all necessary zero-emission solutions at airports. The Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE) is prepared to further advance zero-emission transportation planning and solutions by facilitating a dialogue between key industry stakeholders and the FAA. CTE aims to pinpoint challenges and barriers to electrification and to find and share pragmatic fleet electrification opportunities through strategic listening sessions and working groups.

Airports offer a prime opportunity to electrify ground vehicles now. Careful planning empowers airport leadership to make informed decisions for this crucial transition. Partnering with experienced organizations like CTE can accelerate the aviation industry’s journey toward a cleaner future.