Inside Story

“We are not in the aviation business, we are in the mobility business”

Could there be such a thing as a healthy airport?

Melissa Sweet 12 November 2018 2832 words

Come back next year: the Western Sydney Airport site at Badgery’s Creek. Dean Lewins

As a child growing up in the Netherlands, Evelyne de Leeuw was proud that her town, Amstelveen, was an aviation hub. She and her friends had nicknames for the planes that flew over their school. During summer holidays, she cycled to work as a baggage handler, chuffed to wear the striking KLM livery.

“All of the town was very proud of the airport,” she recalls. “Everyone felt very happy about the planes; they would bring back mums and dads working in the aviation industry.” Her father was a senior executive in the local municipality whose responsibilities included noise abatement.

Some decades later, de Leeuw finds herself following in her father’s footsteps, but with a twist. Now a resident of Sydney’s inner west, where locals living under the flight path refer to “the Petersham pause,” named after one of the local suburbs, de Leeuw is a professor of public health leading a charge to reinvent the way that airports are conceptualised and designed. Together with colleagues at the UNSW Centre for Health Equity Training, Research and Evaluation, or CHETRE, de Leeuw wants to reinvent airports as “engines for health.”

On the face of it, this seems a tall order, given the many ways the aviation industry is bad for the health of people and the planet. Noise pollution is the biggest concern for many communities; a 2016 environment report by the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, On Board: A Sustainable Future, described its wide-ranging health impacts, including upon children’s learning and cognitive development. As well, airports are locations for the spread of infectious diseases, occupational health risks, and the sale and marketing of unhealthy products, not to mention the tensions and stresses involved in negotiating these often unwelcoming environments.

Perhaps most importantly, the aviation industry is responsible for a significant and growing contribution to carbon emissions. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculated that aviation is responsible for 2 per cent of anthropogenic carbon emissions, with about two-thirds coming from international aviation.

At Australian airports alone, the number of journeys is projected to increase by an annual 3.7 per cent over the next twenty years, from 135.1 million in 2010–11 to 279.2 million in 2030–31, according to a 2017 Australian government report, Managing the Carbon Footprint of Australian Aviation. Improvements in aircraft technology and operations, and other efforts to cut carbon emissions will not compensate for this growth, with emissions from domestic aviation projected to rise by an average of 2.2 per cent per annum until 2034–35.

These concerns are all the more reason for rethinking our approaches to airports, says de Leeuw. The idea for healthy airports arose when the CHETRE team began investigating the health and environmental impacts of an airport that is to be built in western Sydney, and heard about the distress and concern of many local residents. The researchers began to wonder what might happen if the airport could be reframed as a place offering positive opportunities for health. They were not only thinking of the health of travellers and airport employees, but also considering the health of local and distant environments, and local communities and industries.

“So we started to take a systems perspective on airport design and to think, how would we design this for health?” says de Leeuw. What if airports were designed to be carbon-neutral? What if they were designed to provide a pleasant experience for travellers? What if they supported sustainable local industries? What if they provided health-promoting and equitable working conditions?

Over the past eighteen months, de Leeuw has been raising these questions with the aviation industry, including at the ICAO. This Montreal-based UN agency oversees the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation and aims to support “a safe, efficient, secure, economically sustainable and environmentally responsible civil aviation sector.”

It’s not an easy sell, persuading engineers and corporations to reconceptualise themselves as agents for health. But the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals have proven a useful lever: all UN agencies, including the ICAO, are obliged to report on their implementation of these goals, many of which have a direct link to the health impacts of airports.

And there are emerging examples of healthy aviation practice. De Leeuw cites Norway’s aim to have a carbon-neutral aviation industry by 2030, Amsterdam Airport’s status as a net producer of electricity generated by photovoltaic cells, and the development of electric planes, with an electric Pipistrel light aircraft making history in Perth earlier this year.

The 2017 Australian government report describes efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of Australian airports. Those in Darwin, Adelaide and Alice Springs have embraced solar technologies, and the report describes Canberra Airport’s new terminal as “one of the most carbon-friendly buildings in Australia, employing water and energy-saving initiatives.”

On her regular air travels, de Leeuw keeps on her researcher’s hat, talking widely with airport staff and other travellers. She recalls experiencing a light-bulb moment when an airport urban planner told her, “We are not in the aviation business, we are in the mobility business.”

“It was such a deep, really profound insight,” says de Leeuw, pointing to the importance to the aviation industry of mobility well beyond the boundaries of an airport. “For that reason, Charles de Gaulle in Paris and Amsterdam Airport co-own the high-speed rail between those two airports… it is in their interests to get people in and out of airports.” She adds that mobility is in itself a critical determinant of health.

De Leeuw and her colleagues are now hoping to influence the design and targets for Western Sydney Airport, which is due to open in 2026. At the same time, they want to work more widely to encourage healthy retrofitting of existing airports, and to develop a discipline of aviation public health.

Not everyone is on board with the concept, though. Among the sceptics is Trevor Neal, who was looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren and family after retiring as a firefighter. Instead, at age sixty-seven, he is putting in long hours as a community activist with Residents Against Western Sydney Airport.

The group formed in 2015 with about twenty people, and now has about 200 volunteers and a social media network amounting to thousands. It is campaigning for Western Sydney Airport to be scrapped in favour of a more environmentally friendly high-speed rail network linking up the major cities on Australia’s east coast. These routes account for a big chunk of the air travel to and from Sydney.

In September, prime minister Scott Morrison turned the first sod on the airport’s construction, exclaiming repeatedly, “How good is this?” He described the airport, which follows more than seventy years of stop–start planning for a second major airport in Sydney, as nation-building, economy-building, job-creating, city-shaping infrastructure that would provide a significant boost to Australia as well as the economy of western Sydney.

Neal, however, talks about its likely impact on the health of local residents, who already experience increased rates of health problems that can be exacerbated by air pollution, such as asthma and other lung diseases and heart disease. He points out that while a curfew on the existing airport benefits central Sydney residents, there are no plans for a curfew in western Sydney.

Neal also notes that the government’s assessments of the airport’s impacts were done before the flight paths were known, which calls into question their usefulness. And in the absence of a fuel line to the new airport, the roads between the airport and Botany will be busy with fuel tankers. Even the consultation processes have been detrimental for community health and wellbeing, according to a health impact assessment undertaken by CHETRE researchers. Residents told the researchers that they felt distressed, distrustful and disempowered.

After three years of solid campaigning, Neal thinks the concerns of Residents Against Western Sydney Airport are starting to gain wider traction, notwithstanding the support of many local council and business interests for the development. “We will fight against this horrendous project until it is scrapped,” he says.

While he doesn’t expect to be around long enough to experience the airport’s impact himself, Neal worries for his family’s future. “The reality is I will probably be six foot under by the time it starts,” he says, “but I do have children, grandchildren and a great-grandchild who all live in the area. The amenity of the area and the social inequality and the health impacts are going to be substantial.”

As for the notion of healthy airports, Neal has heard de Leeuw presenting at conferences. “I don’t have a problem with making airports more healthy, but I object to the concept that an airport can be healthy. It certainly can’t,” he says firmly.

On the day that I interview de Leeuw, hundreds of experts and civic leaders from around the world are gathering in Geneva for the First World Health Organization Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health. They hear about “overwhelming evidence” that exposure to air pollution kills seven million people each year, including 600,000 children. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio is among those fronting a new global clean air campaign called Every Breath Matters, which is pushing for urgent action on this public health crisis.

All of which leads me to ask de Leeuw whether her group’s work could be seen as “health-washing” an industry with a devastating environmental footprint? “We’ve been accused of that,” she replies, noting that when she and her colleagues sought to publish in academic journals, reviewers raised just this concern.

This sentiment resonates with Michael Comninos, a consultant who advises government, industry and other groups on infrastructure, land use and innovation. He has worked widely across western Sydney, including with local councils in the Western Sydney Airport catchment area, and argues that the new airport should prioritise community health and regenerate the natural environment. It should seek to create the “next generation of airports” that people actually want to have in their backyard.

And he says that airports have a unique opportunity. “What I love about it,” Comninos says, “is that it’s a big, big block of land in one entity’s ownership. You don’t have the issue of fragmentation. Often a lot of the problems are because we have fragmented decision-making. But in the context of an airport, you can treat it like a little city that you have control over. You don’t really get many opportunities where you have such a large footprint and can reimagine how you engage with the natural environment.”

Comninos says that Western Sydney Airport has a rare opportunity to embed research, learning, engagement and product development. It is quite unusual in a Western democracy to build airports in cities, so “we shouldn’t waste that opportunity.” The airport, he suggests, could host a living laboratory to test ideas, such as how to generate electricity from the tarmac. But such an approach requires meaningful goals to be set from the outset. “If it’s not done that way, it will never happen,” he says.

As often happens in these conversations, we end up discussing the awful congestion at Sydney Airport that makes efforts to cycle or walk there almost life-threatening. Comninos grew up at Mascot, the site of Sydney’s existing airport, and remembers when he and his friends used to run to the airport to play hide-and-seek in the 1990s. He also recalls it as a place where many of his peers found employment.

These days, Sydney Airport provides some good examples of what not to do. Comninos describes as “a perverse arrangement” the deal whereby an expensive private rail line operates alongside a commitment by the government not to provide additional public transport by bus. It’s unlikely such an agreement would have been allowed if there had been a target at the time for the airport to be carbon-neutral, he says.

Western Sydney Airport is being developed at a time when the industry is under increasing pressure globally to improve its health and environmental footprints. As the executive director of the UN Environment Programme, Erik Solheim, wrote in On Board: A Sustainable Future:

The aviation sector perfectly illustrates why the world needs an integrated approach to the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development and why it must shift to an inclusive green economy that can underpin them. The sector supports some eight million jobs and 8 per cent of the global economy, bringing important international market access to developing nations, relief aid to crisis zones and research data to scientific communities. However, the demand for air transport continues to double every fifteen years, with around six billion passengers a year expected by 2030.

Nor, Solheim wrote, do we fully understand the environmental impact of all emissions, technologies and materials, including some of those being used to replace chemicals being phased out in line with the latest environmental regulations.

But when I email Western Sydney Airport’s executive manager of sustainability, Simone Concha, to ask about its health and environmental plans, she replies: “At this stage we are in the early stages of planning. I am sorry that we are not able to comment yet. Next year will be a better time to talk about design strategies for the Airport.”

Among those encouraging the incorporation of health into planning for the new airport is Mel Fyfe, a transport strategy and planning consultant. Her other hat is as social entrepreneur and co-founder of Blakthumb, an emerging social enterprise that plans to work with Indigenous communities in Australia and globally in building sustainable aquaponic farming systems for local traditional Indigenous foods.

Fyfe and co-founder Carey Taylor are working on plans for a pilot farm in central Sydney, and eventually hope to see such farms as part of Western Sydney Airport, or at least nearby, supplying healthy, locally grown foods to the airport. “The closer we can get the food to people, the less food kilometres and the more nutritious it is,” says Fyfe. This would also be an opportunity for visitors to learn about culture and traditional foods from Aboriginal communities in western Sydney, providing cultural immersion and local employment as part of the airport experience, adds Fyfe.

The concept of healthy airports immediately appealed to Fyfe when she heard about it from de Leeuw. Like de Leeuw, Fyfe has had a long connection with the aviation industry. As a child, she was obsessed with planes and longed to be a fighter pilot.

These days, she views airports as about far more than planes, passengers and throughput. “Good airports understand what makes people tick,” she says. “People need natural light, access to nature, places for relaxing, or for going for a swim. There are people who spend years of their lives in airports. Let’s not make miserable people who have to travel a lot. Let’s make it a very enjoyable experience. The more we can push the boundary with making places like airports healthy, the more it becomes a catalyst for other forms of transport to do it as well.”

Making generalisations about the health impacts of airports is fraught, given the diversity of experiences they offer. Some are purely unpleasant, whereas others can be “wonderful places to spend time,” says Fyfe. Earlier this year, she enjoyed a long stopover at Changi Airport in Singapore, taking a free bus tour of the city and checking out other facilities on offer, which include a gym, swimming pools, gardens and a free film theatre. Changi Airport “lets you relax and not feel like you are trapped,” says Fyfe.

“They are world leaders in sustainable infrastructure and services in Singapore,” she says. “They have the political will and the money to do it. They grow their transport system super fast and it’s really efficient.”

In Sydney and many other parts of Australia, however, it is clear that public health priorities don’t drive transport investment or planning. If they did, we would invest more in public and clean transport and less in motorways. Notably, Australian cities were not featured in an open letter to mayors issued by the World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on World Cities Day on 31 October.

Instead, he praised Vancouver for designing to prioritise pedestrians and cyclists, and striving for zero emissions in transport and energy. Oslo had, he said, cut carbon emissions by 35 per cent by offering owners of electric vehicles benefits like tax breaks, free travel on toll roads and public ferries, access to bus and taxi lanes, and free municipal parking.

Meanwhile, the proposed freeway interchange near Western Sydney Airport has been described by one observer as “the size of a small town.” All of which is a reminder that efforts to create healthy airports cannot be isolated from ensuring that wider transport systems also prioritise health. Professor de Leeuw and her colleagues have a big job ahead. •

This is part of a series of health policy articles for Inside Story by Croakey editors Melissa Sweet and Jennifer Doggett.