“As you know every airport is different. What the biggest contributor is to one’s carbon footprint can vary quite significantly from airport to airport. “- Michael O’Connor, Environment Manager at Athens International Airport.
For this latest interview, we speak with Michael O’Connor from Athens International Airport. We wanted to get a sneak peek into the daily life of the Environment Manager at an airport that welcomes over 20 million passengers a year – and that takes pride in its carbon neutral status.
Could you tell us a bit more about the CO₂ footprint of Athens Airport and the initiatives taken by you to reduce it?
When we started with Airport Carbon Accreditation, it was something new for us. We had created emission inventories before, but the specific rules and requirements of Airport Carbon Accreditation were new. We’ve ascended through all the levels, starting from Mapping, to Reduction, to Optimisation and now, more recently, Neutrality. All along the way, we’ve had excellent support from top management.
In the beginning, the challenges involved understanding the boundaries of and the sources comprising our carbon footprint, the difference between Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3, etc. We then had to establish the internal processes for collecting the necessary data and performing all the calculations. We understood early on that most third parties on site would not have that sort of information and expertise. In order to help them, we organized seminars and invited the environmental representatives from these companies to show them how we measured our CO₂ emissions. Eventually, it evolved into a requirement for them to submit their carbon footprint to us every year. And we continue to provide assistance, whenever they need it.
As you know every airport is different. What the biggest contributor is to one’s carbon footprint can vary quite significantly from airport to airport. In Athens, about 90% of the carbon footprint comes from our electricity consumption. This is due to the peak period of our operations falling during the very hot summer months, making it a challenge to keep the conditions pleasant for everyone in the terminal. Consequently, electricity consumption from our HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) systems is the primary source of our CO₂ emissions.
Could you share with us the recipe for AIA’s success in carbon management?
It’s a group effort. As an airport operator our direct impact on the environment is actually quite limited. We don’t fly the planes, and at our airport we don’t do any handling. On the other hand, we must work with all the airlines, the handlers and other companies very closely and create an atmosphere that things are done differently at our airport. We don’t subscribe to the old ‘business as usual’ concept which did not place an emphasis on environmental protection. This culture change is an on-going process. As the Greek economy continues to struggle, despite a booming tourism industry, it is important that we demonstrate that protecting the environment is a worthwhile investment.
You seem to have a lot of information on which new technologies to implement. How do you keep abreast of these and where does the initiative come from?
Just a few members of the Environment Department deal with issues relating to climate change and AIA’s participation in the Airport Carbon Accreditation, but this is perhaps misleading, because in reality we are working with many other departments within the company, when it comes to finding new ways to reduce our carbon footprint. It is the frontline employees that know the ins and outs of their job, that are aware of the latest developments in their particular field, that come up with ideas to do things better, more efficiently.
More recently, we have spent a lot of time with our IT department, trying to reduce energy consumption associated with computing equipment, communication networks, air conditioning systems for server infrastructure, etc.
In addition, it is important to help our colleagues understand why we want to reduce our carbon footprint. For instance, in the past we have organized screenings of Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” for our employees, to draw their attention to the issue of climate change.
In addition, ACI is a very important piece of that puzzle in terms of keeping airports informed about regulatory developments at the European level, industry best practices and so on. As you know, I participate in ACI’s Environmental Strategy Committee and during these meetings we devote time to sharing information about the initiatives each of us is undertaking, what worked and what didn’t, the associated costs, etc.
Recently, there have been a lot of articles in the press about AIA using Internet of Things technology in its environmental monitoring. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
This project evolved from AIA’s “Airport Innovation Challenge” initiative, which is led by our IT department. It aims to encourage the younger generation, which is much more digitally inclined and proficient, to transform the airport environment and passenger experience with their innovative ideas. It takes the form of a competition called “The Digital Gate”, which is organized in collaboration with the Athens Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation of the Athens University of Economics and Business. In the first round, we established a cooperation with a startup company called ExMachina that specializes in IoT technology, which is probably what you read about in the press. We collaborated with them on the use of smaller, less complex environmental sensors than the ones we already had in place, and connecting with them through the Internet to gain faster, easier access to their output.
I should mention here, that our situation is slightly unusual compared to other airports, in that we are responsible for monitoring air quality not only inside the airport fence, but also outside. Our airport is a greenfield airport that was built in an area outside the city of Athens, where air quality had not previously been monitored, and this job was given to the Airport Company. Consequently, we operate 5 permanent stations monitoring the air quality outside of the airport fence, in the communities around the airport.
The IoT project was aimed at supplementing our existing network with a less expensive technology, which offered us more flexibility and the ability to deploy more sensors at a lower cost. It has also facilitated our access to the data through a new wireless communication technology called LoRaWAN that very few airports have implemented to date. As an Environmental Department, it was our first look at where innovative technology, in both communications and monitoring, can take us in the future and change the way things have traditionally been done with regard to monitoring air quality, noise and other environmental parameters.
We have now launched the second round of “The Digital Gate”, and another proposal has been submitted that aims to apply IoT technology to an environmental challenge. In this case the technology may be used to encourage more recycling by airport employees. We have created different points on the airport site where employees can recycle materials from their day-to-day work, as well as bring recyclables from home. We have a dedicated recycling center where they can deposit, for example, their e-waste. The proposed IoT technology could enable tracking of each employee’s recycling activities without being physically present. Our top recyclers could then be recognized and rewarded with discounts at airport F&B, retail, etc.
Do you use the environmental data that you collect in your communications with the stakeholders and the passengers?
Yes, sure! We have several means to reach the airport community and our passengers. We have a dedicated annual publication entitled “Care for the Environment”, that we no longer print but distribute via our website. It contains a comprehensive selection of measurement data, including details about where we measure noise and air quality, what data we collect, what different measures are in place to reduce annoyance due to noise in the neighborhoods around the airport, how much waste we collect, how much we recycle, and of course our CO₂ footprint and our actions to reduce and neutralize it. In addition, we provide our passengers and airport visitors with a shorter, more easily digestible format, called “Green Care”. It’s distributed as an insert included in our quarterly airport magazine 2Board, which is available for free to all passengers and airport visitors. It contains mostly infographics, which are a friendlier medium for someone who wants just a quick glance at what the airport is doing. Another way of communicating our environmental actions is the Airport Carbon Accreditation banners and screen displays at the terminal.
The other part involves reaching members of the airport community. Our Annual Environmental Workshop for Third Parties is one of our initiatives to facilitate communication and collaboration with our third parties. We have more than 300 stakeholders present on site. For some, their activities are limited to the office environment, with whom we talk about recycling their office paper, for example. But collaboration with all the major, in terms of environmental impact, companies, such as the airlines, the ground handlers and the catering companies, needs to be at a higher level, hence the Workshop. The Workshops have been taking place for almost 10 years now and one of their main aims is to encourage these companies, in the framework of Airport Carbon Accreditation, to map and reduce their carbon footprint. During these meetings, we discuss our CO₂ reduction actions, but also encourage these companies to present their initiatives. It’s a mutual learning experience. As environmental legislation is an ever-changing landscape in Europe, we also use these meetings to talk about new requirements that may be applicable to some or all of the third parties depending on the topic. On top of that, this year for the first time, we are going to present an award for environmental performance, with which we want to publicly recognize one of the stakeholders for their significant efforts in carbon reduction and other environmental protection measures.
Which project out of the vast scope of what you are doing makes you the proudest?
Moving up to the final level of Airport Carbon Accreditation was a challenging project and we are quite proud of this accomplishment. I have to mention our gratitude to our fellow ACI (Europe) members that kindly shared their experience with us regarding carbon offsetting. Certainly, a landmark project for our airport is the construction and operation of an 8MW solar park that was the largest unified solar installation at an airport worldwide when it was commissioned in 2011. Its annual production is equivalent to about 25% of the Airport Company’s electricity needs and when you extend that to the entire airport community, it’s about 12-13%.
Could you share with us some fun facts about AIA’s participation in the Airport Carbon Accreditation?
Our airport led the ACI Europe Task Force that was tasked with developing the programme. Our CEO, Dr Yiannis Paraschis, was President of ACI EUROPE when Airport Carbon Accreditation was launched in June 2009. A final piece of trivia is that the ATC tower on the programme’s logo is that of Athens. That’s what happens when your airport’s Marketing Department is asked to contribute ideas for the programme logo!