Best Practices for Local Government Leaders to Spearhead Airport Sustainability

Nov. 7, 2023
Local government leaders need to find a balance between socioeconomic and environmental priorities when planning for sustainable airports.

Local government leaders, like their counterparts in other sectors and industries, are facing mounting pressure to upgrade public facility infrastructure to be more sustainable and efficient. Why? Because aside from mitigating the effects of climate change, efficient buildings are a main component of communities that engage residents, enable thriving businesses, and promote resiliency for years to come. Not only do optimized buildings help our planet, but they also keep occupants safer and healthier and allow building owners and businesses to cut costs and drive value. Importantly, sustainability projects can also create local jobs, while the result attracts high-paying tenants and top talent.

In the U.S., nearly all commercial airports are publicly owned by state or local governments, making them some of the largest facilities under local leaders’ purview. Airports have an enormous impact on the economy and growth of their surrounding communities and host people from all corners of the world, so it’s imperative they run as efficiently and reliably as possible. For this reason, facility leaders should focus on eco-friendly operations, greater occupant comfort, increased security measures, and more – adopting digital technologies to achieve these goals. Building automation systems (BAS) can offer visibility and control into all systems airport-wide, including security, fire detection, access controls, check-in systems, baggage handling, and so much more. BAS technology can also automate escalators and moving walkways and communicate with HVAC and lighting systems to keep travelers and employees comfortable at all times. Using these tools, stakeholders can synthesize huge amounts of data and generate insights to help meet decarbonization and energy-efficiency targets.

Yet when planning for more sustainable airports, local government leaders need to carefully balance socioeconomic and environmental priorities and may face challenges along the way. Therefore, they need to be aware of how to address the various obstacles and risks that come hand-in-hand with retrofitting or renovating public facilities so they can reap myriad benefits in the long term. As long as they’re thoughtful of how green projects might impact their budgets and potentially disrupt flight schedules or operability of crucial systems – especially if a project gets stalled – they’ll be well prepared to overcome these hurdles.

The risks associated with sustainability efforts should be managed by the entities best equipped to do so, which, for many local government leaders, means a third-party partner with deep expertise. This partner will be able to provide an objective, holistic view into the local governments’ vision for a greener airport and help develop a roadmap for greater sustainability and efficiency – all while mitigating risks and keeping costs manageable. In fact, strategic partnerships for sustainability will benefit local government leaders in three key areas.


The first step in local leaders’ journey is evaluating the existing infrastructure and systems within community facilities, like airports, to understand how they’re performing and where there’s opportunity for improvement. At this stage, leaders will gain a better sense of what’s operating efficiently, what’s not, and where to focus their energy. Often, investments will align with specific goals the locality is committed to – whether that’s reaching net zero carbon emissions, saving energy, improving indoor air quality, providing a best-in-class travel experience, or any number of other desired outcomes. Once leaders have a solid grasp of their current status and have aligned on their end goals, they can outline next steps and develop a plan for progress. Critically, partners are vital at this stage to help leaders identify what risks may come up along the way, such as system downtime or temporarily displacing travelers while retrofits are underway, and how to navigate these obstacles. Additionally, they’ll help match leaders with the right tools for any given job, drawing from their broad knowledge of the latest technologies, efficiencies, and innovative solutions for various use cases.


After the assessment period is complete, local government owners need to determine how they’ll fund these upgrades. Importantly, and contrary to popular belief, airports are charged with operating self-sustainably and often receive little support from taxpayers, so owners of these facilities need to find other ways to fund infrastructure enhancements. While steep costs are one of the top deterrents keeping owners from completing necessary renovations, there are alternative financing options that minimize upfront costs and make it possible to advance green efforts on a tighter budget. Airport stakeholders don’t have to wait until they have excess capital to dive into sustainability projects – they can start improving their space for travelers, employees, and communities right away with the help of innovative financing.

For instance, performance contracts allow building owners to pay for improvements through operating budgets or savings generated – particularly energy savings – typically without an expensive upfront investment. This financing model ensures predictability since the outside partner pays the difference if guaranteed savings don’t accrue, transferring some of the financial risk away from local leaders. This arrangement reduces the burden on public budgets and helps cities, counties, and states preserve precious capital. It also gives local leaders a partner who can shoulder some of the responsibilities for decision-making and outcomes. Contingent payment programs are also available, in which a government partners with a private partner who takes on the risk of financing infrastructure projects. Upon completion, airports can make scheduled quarterly payments over a set term to maintain a flatlined budget. 

Public-private partnerships are a third financing model in which government leaders can collaborate with private entities to complete infrastructure upgrades. Often, private partners will take the lead, driving projects forward through every step from design to construction and beyond. On the financing side, private entities can help public building owners decide how best to fund sustainability projects and take advantage of relevant tax credits, rebates, and other incentives. These partnerships accelerate project success because the two entities can pool their resources, expertise, and funding – bringing sustainable community buildings to life more efficiently.  


Once government leaders have assessed their airport’s existing infrastructure, developed a game plan to tackle upgrades and locked in financing, what happens next? Whether the renovations are geared toward protecting the environment, improving occupant wellbeing, reducing safety risks, or anything else top-of-mind, partners can help with the implementation of “analog” measures or digital technologies to address each of these categories. They’ll also help leaders get more fidelity from the data they’re collecting to make better decisions for their communities. Rather than viewing sustainability projects as “set it and forget it” activities, leaders also need to use technology to continuously benchmark their progress and track against the goals they established in the assessment phase. Finally, the last (and ongoing) stage of a project is to stay on top of maintenance needs, which will prevent unexpected, costly repairs in the future and reduce overall system downtime.

The Denver International Airport is a prime case study of what’s possible for retrofits, with its integrated, visual public address (PA) systems that update passengers on everything from airline, transportation, baggage, hotel accommodations, and safety. Advanced technology and infrastructure allow data from airport networks to seamlessly communicate, and its state-of-the-art central utility plant is saving the airport electricity and drastically reducing its carbon output.

Today’s local government leaders have a responsibility to ensure the infrastructure and systems in publicly owned buildings, like airports, align with their mission and operate efficiently. This is a matter of urgency, since outdated systems drain economic resources, hike up costs, and negatively impact occupant experiences. But before taking on necessary retrofits, leaders need to first understand the associated risks of these projects and how to overcome common challenges, like securing financing and maximizing the ROI of technology investments. To make the process easier, leaders should partner with outside experts who can provide tactical support at every turn, allowing them to stay focused on the big picture of leading their communities.

As the Senior Director for Government Infrastructure and Smart Communities at Johnson Controls, Lisa Brown is responsible for growth of the local government & smart communities market globally, including the development of strategies, offerings and innovations for local government service and systems markets. Lisa is a recognized thought leader in smart buildings and campus solutions, energy efficiency, state & local government relations, sustainable infrastructure, IoT, ecosystem partner development in products, contracting and service initiatives.