The Earth, Wind and Fire of Airport Sustainability

How sustainable efforts are breathing new life into today’s airports, saving the environment and money at the same time

Airports like Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, and Indianapolis International Airport are leaving no stone unturned on their quest for the earth, wind and fire of environmental sustainability. And in the case of the aforementioned airports, they’ve already found it. O’Hare uncovered the earth in an environmentally saving runway project; Sea-Tac faced the wind with its preconditioned air system; and Indianapolis stoked the fire with its solar farm.

Of the three examples, consider this: Sea-Tac projects its airlines will use 5 million gallons less jet fuel a year because of their access to its new preconditioned air system; O’Hare kept 6 million cubic yards of dirt and concrete out of the landfill; and the Indianapolis solar energy project prevents 11,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere annually.

“There are many environmental projects out there that are smart both environmentally and economically,” says Elizabeth Leavitt, Sea-Tac environmental director. “If you focus on the low-hanging fruit in the beginning, people will start to see that sustainability is not just about being green in terms of environment but also in terms of money.”



Project: Group 6 Runway

Where: O’Hare International Airport

Cost: $1.3 billion

Environmental Savings:

$130 million saved by recycling concrete, using warm mix asphalt and employing cut-and-fill construction methods.

On a crisp autumn day, planes began roaring down the new runway at O’Hare International Airport. While the 10,800-foot airstrip represents a feat in and of itself as it builds hopes of reducing delays at the second busiest airport in the world, the true hallmark of this project might just be the sustainability of the construction itself.

Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino says the construction involved moving earth to create a new detention basin. The old basin, known in some circles as Lake O’Hare, was filled with excavated dirt removed from the new one. “It was a cut-and-fill job,” Andolino explains. “We minimized earth movements or handling of the earth by only handling it once.”

The airport also put a crusher on the job site to break up existing concrete, crush it into certain types of mixes, and reuse it. “Traditionally we would have taken that concrete, hauled it to a landfill, and brought in virgin materials,” says Andolino.

Crews also used warm mix asphalt for the project. In fact, O’Hare is among the first airports in the United States to produce and place warm mix asphalt—as opposed to hot mix asphalt—in the construction of new taxiways and runways. Like hot mix asphalt, warm mix asphalt combines aggregates and liquid but through the use of additional additives requires less heat to produce. Because less heat is required to produce the mix, less fuel is consumed, fewer greenhouse gases are produced, and emissions are reduced.

The techniques employed in the runway project are part of the O’Hare Modernization Program’s (OMP) Earthwork Management Program, which aims to extend runways, construct new runways, expand terminal facilities, and incorporate landside improvements in the most environmentally friendly way possible. To date, the OMP has handled more than 18 million cubic yards of soil in an environmentally friendly way designed to reduce hauling, labor and fuel costs, as well as emissions and traffic congestion.

And according to Andolino, this approach has been both green and saved green. It has kept more than 6 million cubic yards of earthwork onsite and out of landfills by reusing the soil in new projects or saving it for future use, and these efforts have saved the CDA more than $130 million.

“And because we didn’t haul dirt offsite, we also minimized trips on local roadways, wear and tear on those roadways, and community impacts,” Andolino adds.



Project: Preconditioned Air System

Where: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

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