Future Challenges for Airports and Air Networks

As the planet continues to try and deal with and adapt to the serious issue of rapid population growth and the possible future impacts of climate change, transport systems such as air travel face a number of issues. There have been several different ways in which different airports, cities and countries have looked to tackle this problem. This article will look at and discuss different methods which are being employed worldwide and also look at some case studies from different airports and how they are dealing with these issues.

Impacts of Rapid Population Growth and Climate Change

The rising demand on airports and air services are multi faceted. There are two major areas which are affected, passenger services and cargo services. Airports only have a certain number of runways and some airports have restricted flying hours due to being in close proximity to residential areas, so the airports can only handle a fixed number of flights daily, and this can also be affected by factors such as technical problems or bad weather. So an influx in the number of people requiring flight services will only place more pressure on airports, airport systems and airport personnel. Cargo planes are also facing familiar problems, as rapid population growth will also place extra pressure on cargo services and place them in direct competition for runway space and air flight control. All of these factors will also place a financial burden on airports, as factors such as extended hours will cause a significant increase in the costs of labour and logistics 1).

There has been much discussion on the issue of climate change, who is causing it, how bad it is going to be and so forth. Air travel networks in their nature are seriously prone to the possible impacts of climate change, such as adverse weather events, rising sea levels, heat waves and flooding. These factors can affect both passenger and cargo air systems by reducing the number of hours that the airport can operate due to factors such as bad weather, storms and increased precipitation. Some airports are located very close to the coast, and if the predicted sea level rise scenarios occur, some airports face the prospect of inundation due to storm surges,Such events would cause catastrophic consequences for the airports and place even more pressure on infrastructure and flight demands. The geographical location of some airports can also cause them to have a higher probability of flooding due to an increase in precipitation and inversely higher temperatures can lead to infrastructure damage such as the melting or warping of runways due to extreme heat conditions 2).

Adaptation Measures

Airport expansion has generally been the first method that has been used by decision makers when it comes to rapid population growth. These expansions can come in the form of extra runways and extensions of terminals and also the construction of more cargo handling hangars, or simply by building a completely new airport. This is usually achieved by the acquiring land adjacent to airports or new land acquisition. This acquisition is not always possible however due to other factors such as the the suitability of land, current use of the land or other legal and social issues. Some airports have also tried to tackle this issue by the increasing of operating hours, however this usually requires community consultation and legislation changes. Please find below a case study on the airport expansion in Kuala Lumpur which opens in May, 2014:

In order to tackle to issue of overcrowding and the projected increases in future population, Malaysian authorities decided to expand the capacity of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). The new terminal is to be named Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (KLIA2) and constructed next to the current airport. In between the years 2009-2011, there was a marked growth in the amount of people travelling through KLIA, which saw an increase from 48.9 million people in 2009 to 63.1 million people in 2011 3).


KLIA2 Terminal and Skybridge 4)

A feasibility study and an environmental impact study was conducted and as a result of this the airport authorities decided to acquired land, 242,000 square metres, adjacent to the current international airport in order to build the terminal and a new runway. The new terminal is currently under construction and is expected to be completed by May, 2014. The new terminal will be linked to the original terminal by the use of a bus service, and the terminal will be used mainly by budget carriers and it is predicted that the terminal will be used by approximately 45 million per year 5). The total cost of this project is anticipated to be around 4 billion Malaysian Ringgit (1.3 billion AUD). Air Asia will be the first major airline company to move to the new terminal. Despite the fact that the terminal is yet to open, the projections for the increased amount of passengers that this terminal process is significant and indicates what will be a successful project. The second terminal will reduce the amount of pressure on KLIA and also attract new airline companies to run services to and from the city which can lead to an increase in revenue 6).

Responses to climate change have not been as definitive as it has been with rapid population growth. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States sponsored a study which was called ‘Airport Climate Adaptation and Resilience (2012)’. This study looked at current and future climate change adaptation strategies which were currently being used in airport around the United States along with future strategies. The main points to come of this study were:

  • Scenario Planning – Determine likely future impacts, use climate change models, conduct risk assessments and recommend future actions.
  • Economic Analysis – Determine the likely costs of potential future threats and weigh up spending compared to benefits. This would include projecting future tourism numbers in relation to altered climatic conditions.
  • Climate Impacts Profile – Using historical data to assess how the airports have dealt with extreme weather events in the past and how to improve these responses.
  • Risk Management – Assessing and prioritising the levels of risk using a series of matrices and identifying the critical infrastructure in the airport 7).

In Brisbane, Australia, the major airport is in a unique position due to its low lying position which can potentially be impacted by flooding and rising sea levels, and also the fact that it is located in an area which has rich biodiversity. It has been decided that a new runway is built in the existing airport, and in order for it to become resilient to the impacts of climate change the authorities decided to make the height of runway to match and exceed projected future sea level rises and also flooding in adverse weather events, whilst having a minimum impact on the environment around it 8).


Brisbane Airport 9)

In 2011 authorities at Heathrow Airport, London, formulated a strategy for climate change adaptation. The strategy outlined the different ways in which they would deal with the problem, including methods such as using climate models and preparing for worst case scenarios, infrastructure upgrades and maintenance, provision for better methods of air traffic control during adverse weather conditions, better runway surfaces which can cope with variant temperatures, both hot and cold and also methods of weather monitoring and 5 yearly updates which measure any perceived or real changes 10).


Climate change and rapid population growth are the two biggest challenges that are faced by the planet in the decades to come. Airports are a main facilitator in helping economies by the means of tourism and also freight movements. In order to minimise any future economic losses, it is critical that the money is spent now in anticipation, as measures to rebuild damaged infrastructure would be far more costly in the long run. Whilst airport expansions seem the obvious choice in facilitating for extra passengers, this concept is not always a viable or possible solution. Some other initiatives need to be taken, such as better and more efficient air traffic control, possible extending of airport operating hours or aeroplanes with bigger passenger capacities. In order to reduce domestic air traffic other modes of transport should be looked at, such as high speed trains between major cities. Any future airport expansions or new airports should also be built with climate change in mind, ideally preparing for the worst case scenarios and current airports improving infrastructure in the meantime. All of these scenarios should be discussed by relevant stakeholders with the understanding that preparation is always a more cost effective method than cure.

Environment | Transport

Green, R. K., 2007, 'Airports and economic development', Real Estate Economics, vol.35, no.1, pp.91-112
Scott, D., Gössling, S., & Hall, C. M., 2012, 'International tourism and climate change', Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, vol.3, no.3, pp.213-232
3) , 5)
Sahrir, S., Bachok, S. & Osman, M. 2012, ‘Sustainability in Airport Planning and Development Impacts of Airport Expansion’, International Islamic University of Malaysia, Available: http://www.earoph.info/pdf/2012papers/DAY2/session4/S3/S3-4(3)-P1.pdf
Klia2 by wlakingcamus, licence CC 3.0, Available: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KLIA2_skybridge.jpg
Khalid, U.A, Sahrir, S., Bohari, Z.A., Bachok, S. & Osman, M. 2012, ‘Airport Expansion: The Malaysian experience of KLIA2’, 2012 World Conference of Air Transport Research Society, 27-30 June 2012, Tainan, Taiwan
Federal Aviation Authority USA, 2012, ‘Airport Climate Adaptation and Resilience’, Available: http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/acrp/acrp_syn_033.pdf
Climate Change Adaptation Brisbane Airport, Available: http://igcc.org.au/Resources/Documents/Infrasrtucture_Brisbane_Airport_Dec12.pdf
Brisbane Airport by Mehdi Nazarinia, licence CC 3.0, Available: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brisbane_Airport_from_the_air_Nazarinia.jpg

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