GAO Issues Glowing Report on Airports and the Environment

On September 21, 2010, the Government Accountability Office issued its report entitled “Aviation and the Environment: Systematically Addressing Environmental Impacts and Community Concerns Can Help Airports Reduce Project Delays.” This is a topic that is not unfamiliar to readers of this blog, (see Why the Airports and the Aviation Industry Need to Be Concerned About Climate Change: Part One, Facts about Aviation and Climate Change), however, GAO’s approach was a little different.

What the GAO found was that almost all the airports it surveyed had taken some actions to address their environmental impacts, at least in four areas that they believed were relevant to airports: reducing noise levels, controlling water pollution, reducing emissions, and using environmentally sustainable practices. These included voluntary actions, such as asking pilots and controllers to use aircraft operational procedures that lower noise levels, as well as actions required by federal and state laws, such as in the areas of controlling water and air pollution.

Larger airports, which can have more environmental impacts because of such issues as deicing pads, co-generation facilities, traffic to and from the terminals, were more likely than other surveyed airports to take a wider range of actions, such as soundproofing homes or installing loading bridges that supply aircraft with electric power to lower engine usage and emissions (“supplied power”). Finally, GAO found that airports were moving toward a more holistic approach to environmental management, including following environmentally sustainable standards and implementing an Environmental Management System.

Surprisingly, the GAO found that less than half of the surveyed airports believed that addressing environmental issues somewhat or greatly delayed a development project (35 percent) or operational change (42 percent) at their airport over the last 5 years, even though the vast majority had undertaken a capital development project or operational change during this time period. Both the reported delay and the extent and significance of delay were determined by the responding airport. Likewise, less than half similarly believe that addressing environmental issues will cause delays in the next 5 years.  Addressing water issues and noise issues was the most commonly cited environmental issue that led to delay in implementing development projects and operational changes, respectively.

The GAO reported that a number of airports have adopted strategies to systematically address environmental impacts and community concerns, which can help both mitigate environmental impacts and anticipate and reduce problems with communities and other stakeholders that can lead to delays. Airports told the GAO that they are integrating environmental considerations into their planning process, including 7 of the 10 airports GAO visited. Some airports are also finding success in streamlining the federal environmental review process and in integrating their environmental management processes with the federal environmental review process. Finally, effective community outreach that solicits stakeholder input, fosters interactive communication with local communities, and evaluates its outreach efforts can help airports better anticipate and deal with community opposition.

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