A Sustainability Framework for Air Transport


What is sustainability?


Sustainability is a fuzzy concept which reflects the need to balance the long-term economic, social and environmental effects of a human activity. It means different things to different people: an economic actor is primarily interested in economic survivability whereas an environmentalist is primarily concerned with long-term impact on the environment (see Defining Sustainability in the Aviation Sector).


Air transport is a major industry that affects society through increased mobility of people and delivery of goods, as well as through consumption of fossil fuels and the potential impact on climate change. It is one of the few sectors where growth has been a reality since the beginning, whatever ‘crises’ have occurred. Long term forecasts predict a continuing growth rate of 2.5%, which means from 50% increase to almost a doubling of traffic by 2025 (see the Challenges to Growth 2004 report). While good for economies and challenging for air traffic management, this growth affects local and global environments through emissions and fossil fuel consumption and is generating increasing resistance in some European societies.


Air transport will be sustainable if a compromise can be found which is acceptable from all three points of view: social, environmental and economic.


A framework for Air Transport sustainability can help understand the necessary trade-off between the economic drivers and the social and environmental forces increasingly part of everyday life.


What is a sustainability framework?


A framework is a set of trend indicators designed to help us to have a view of the perspectives held by stakeholders on societal, environmental and economic issues. It shows the trend of each indicator over time with the intention of showing how the industry as a whole is evolving.


We present here a very first attempt at constructing a “Sustainability Framework for Air Transport” (Fig 1). The selected indicators are calculated from publicly available data produced by the stakeholders themselves. The yearly trend is depicted with a simple logo indicating at a glance whether it is good or needs to be improved.




For example, taking the air navigation service provider (ANSP) view on economic issues (Fig 2), we could define the cost of en-route air navigation service provision to include both the cost of the service charged to airspace users and the costs of ATFM delays which are due to insufficient ANS system capacity.


Fig 2


The cost for en-route air navigation services covers the total cost paid by the users of European airspace (including 31 States in 2003) for ATM/CNS services, meteorological services, and Eurocontrol. The cost of ATFM delays includes the cost of six main sources: fuel burn, maintenance costs, crew salaries and expenses, handling agent penalties, airport charges and the costs of passenger delays (compensation and rebooking, loss of revenue and market share). The cost per minute delay is applied to the total delay in Europe of flights delayed by more than 15 minutes.


A first version of a framework has been produced and needs further elaboration and research. In particular, understanding and ‘measuring’ social sustainability in order to compare it with economic and environmental effects is the trickiest part of establishing a sustainability framework. Social sustainability of the industry and of ATM requires not only technical competence and professionalism, but also transparency and recognition by all the actors that constitute ‘society’; other industries have also looked at this issue and research is continuing in this area.


By publishing this first version of an air transport sustainability framework now, we aim to stimulate reaction and debate at the start of this project and also contribute to promoting a holistic view of the industry amongst decision makers.




SEE Report 2004/013 - Indicators for the Management of Sustainable Growth in the Air Transport System




Nadine Pilon, Ted Elliff