Aviation and the Environment:

Systematically Addressing Environmental Impacts and Community Concerns Can Help Airports Reduce Project Delays

GAO-10-50: Published: Sep 13, 2010. Publicly Released: Sep 21, 2010.

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Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
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Office of Public Affairs
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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that the number of flights in the United States will increase 20 percent by 2024. It also has identified numerous airports that will need to expand to handle more flights. However, increasing airport capacity and operations poses potentially significant impacts on the environment and quality of life for surrounding communities. This report addresses (1) airports' actions to reduce their environmental impacts, (2) the extent airports believe environmental issues delay development or operational changes, and (3) the strategies airports can adopt to address environmental issues. GAO reviewed pertinent federal laws and regulations; interviewed airport officials, state and local regulatory agencies, metropolitan planning organizations, and community groups for 10 selected airports, as well as federal officials and national industry and advocacy groups; and surveyed the 150 busiest airports as measured by the number of operations. This report does not contain recommendations. A draft was provided to the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and two organizations representing airports and airport officials. GAO incorporated technical clarifications they provided as appropriate.

Almost all the airports GAO surveyed took some actions to address their environmental impacts in four key areas: reducing noise levels, controlling water pollution, reducing emissions, and using environmentally sustainable practices. These include voluntary actions, such as asking pilots and controllers to use aircraft operational procedures that lower noise levels, as well as actions required by federal and state laws, such as in the areas of controlling water and air pollution. Larger airports, which can have more environmental impacts, were more likely than other surveyed airports to take a wider range of actions, such as soundproofing homes or installing loading bridges that supply aircraft with electric power to lower engine usage and emissions. Finally, GAO found that airports were moving toward a more holistic approach to environmental management, including following environmentally sustainable standards and implementing an Environmental Management System (EMS). Less than half of the surveyed airports believe that addressing environmental issues somewhat or greatly delayed a development project (35 percent) or operational change (42 percent) at their airport over the last 5 years, even though the vast majority had undertaken a capital development project or operational change during this time period. Both the reported delay and the extent and significance of delay were determined by the responding airport. Less than half similarly believe that addressing environmental issues will cause delays in the next 5 years. More airports reported that they had been somewhat delayed than greatly delayed. Larger airports were somewhat less likely than all surveyed airports to believe that addressing environmental issues will cause a delay in development projects (30 percent) or operational changes (36 percent). Addressing water issues and noise issues was the most commonly cited environmental issue that led to delay in implementing development projects and operational changes, respectively. A number of airports have adopted strategies to systematically address environmental impacts and community concerns, which can help both mitigate environmental impacts and anticipate and reduce problems with communities and other stakeholders that can lead to delays. Airports are integrating environmental considerations into their planning process, including 7 of the 10 airports GAO visited. Some airports are also finding success in streamlining the federal environmental review process and in integrating their EMS processes with the federal environmental review process. Finally, effective community outreach that solicits stakeholder input, fosters interactive communication with local communities, and evaluates its outreach efforts can help airports better anticipate and deal with community opposition.

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