Air quality at airports, a challenge for heatlh and environment

January 25, 2024
Air quality at airports is the main challenge aviation faces to join the sustainable mobility of the future.

The future is not set in stone, but the next time we’re flying into an airport, let’s think twice about taking a deep breath after having touched down. The impact of gaseous and particulate emissions at airports contributes to the worsening of air quality in our environment.

The increase in local pollution has an impact on the number of premature deaths of workers and residents in airport areas and on the development of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

To curb the impact of airport pollution on human health, it is essential to first identify what we are dealing with.

Air quality measurement systems make it possible to define the gases and particles present in suspension at airports and, similarly, it is only through the precise data collected for each pollutant that it is possible to define how this pollution affects the inhabited areas close to their facilities.


How much the air transport pollutes

A study carried out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the impact of aircraft on air quality, linked to flight altitude, the chemical composition of its emissions and its location, has shown that the greatest changes in air quality caused by aircraft come from carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and water vapour from condensation trails that are released when at cruising speed.

To this is added the environmental impact of the traffic generated by airports and the congestion it causes to the surrounding area. Noise pollution from excessive aircraft noise should also not be underestimated. It is a source of health problems and stress for people in the vicinity as well as for airport employees.

In addition to altering air quality, aviation emissions also contribute to climate change. With the current volume of commercial air traffic in the world’s skies, it is estimated that aviation emissions account for 5% of the gases that contribute to anthropogenic climate change, which causes the overheating of the earth caused by human activity.

These damages together make aviation a challenge for future air mobility. Achieving its commitment to sustainability requires meeting targets for reducing air quality pollutants and significantly reducing aircraft noise.


Types of pollutants at airports

The National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States states that airports are considered to be one of the biggest sources of pollution in the country. Airports pose a serious health risk to the people who mainly work in the outdoor facilities, as well as to those living in the surrounding area.

The main emissions affecting air quality at airports and their immediate surroundings come from Jet A1 fuel from aircraft and diesel from vehicles used during the provision of ground services such as baggage handling, refuelling, cleaning or aircraft security.

Emissions are linked to widespread ultrafine particulate matter (UFPs). Tiny particles, that reach their highest concentration in aircraft parking areas, pose a high health risk to the maintenance personnel working around them.

What are UFPs?

Ultra-fine particles (UFPs) are among the pollutants that remain suspended in the air around aircraft due to their nanometric size. Their danger lies in the fact that, due to their tiny size (less than 100 nanometres), they are absorbed when they reach the deepest levels of the lung mucous membranes, from where they enter the bloodstream.

Aertec Solutions - Infographic aeronautical sustainability - Kunak

Aertec Solutions – Infographic aeronautical sustainability – Kunak


Polluting gasses emitted by aeroplanes

The main gases emitted by aircraft:

Carbon dioxide (CO2)

It is an odourless, colourless, slightly acidic, non-flammable gas that, when present in the atmosphere, increases the temperature of the planet and is the main cause of climate change. In the last 200 years, emissions from human activities have increased its presence in the atmosphere by 50%.

Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)

Both nitrogen monoxide and nitrogen dioxide are nitrogen oxides present in the air. Exposure to high concentrations of nitrogen oxides affects the respiratory tract and can even cause burns to the eyes and skin.

Water vapour from condensation trails

Produced during combustion in aircraft jets when they pass through areas of very cold air. They are formed instantaneously when the hot air coming out of the aircraft engines freezes and the water vapour particles crystallise (reverse sublimation). By joining with the small solid particles that remain at that altitude, they become ice crystals that remain in the form of condensation trails for varying lengths of time depending on the weather conditions at the time.

All these gases are generated when aircraft travel at cruising speed and have a major impact on climate change through their contribution to the greenhouse effect. In addition to these, other pollutants include:

  • Hydrocarbons
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Sulphur gases
  • Soot and metals

that affect air quality, particularly outside airports.


Health risks for airport workers?

Airport ground handlers are the main victims of the presence of these pollutants in their working environment.

The air that workers breathe while carrying out their duties is the direct cause of diseases that mainly affect the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. They also lead to various health problems that become chronic problems.

Larger particles (PM10) that remain in the air and are ingested when breathing can be removed from the respiratory system by physiological mechanisms such as coughing, sneezing or swallowing. Whereas the smaller particles (PM2.5) can enter the innermost part of the lungs and enter the bloodstream.


Solutions to airport pollution

The commercial aviation industry is experiencing such popularity that passenger traffic is growing by 4.7% each year, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and it is predicted that by 2037 the number of air passengers will have doubled (8.2 billion). IATA (International Air Transport Association) states that, due to the environmental impact caused by air transport, urgent measures are required to reduce its polluting emissions.

Regarding measures to minimise the impact of aircraft noise on nearby populations and the environment, the “balanced approach” to ICAO’s guidelines should be maintained to minimise its effects and make airport infrastructures compatible with the quality of life and the natural environment.


International milestones

Among the most effective measures to reduce air traffic pollution is the renewal of the air fleet. It would be enough to replace 12% of existing aircraft to drastically reduce the harmful impact of aircraft on climate change and air quality.

Similarly, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) is already in place, from 2021 onwards voluntarily and mandatory from 2027 onwards, the aim is to halve the total CO2 emissions caused by international civil aviation by 2030.

Together with Spain, which has joined through the Spanish State Aviation Safety Association (AESA), there are already 81 states in the world that have adhered to the plan, which represents the commitment of 77% of air traffic.

Aertec Solutions - Airports and climate change - Kunak

Aertec Solutions – Airports and climate change – Kunak


Kunak solutions for sustainable aviation

Accuracy in Kunak outdoor measurement systems of both gaseous and airborne particles contributes to the precise measurement of pollution at airports. Furthermore, it is essential to have a perimeter network of environmental monitoring sensors in the airport environment to provide an overall view of the impact of the airport’s activity.

These systems make it possible to accurately measure the main pollutants arising from airport activity, such as:

and other environmental factors such as:

  • temperature
  • humidity
  • atmospheric pressure
  • dew point

It is also necessary that all the data collected by the sensor network can be analysed through analysis tools such as the Kunak AIR Cloud software, the air quality measurement programme, which analyses data simply and, in turn, provides useful information for decision-making.

Thanks to this analysis software, data can be easily visualised, and informed decisions can be made to implement measures to improve air quality conditions inhaled by people working, travelling and living in airport environments.

Airports around the world have already worked with Kunak measurement systems such as:

  • Zurich Airport (Switzerland)
  • Subic Bay Airport (Philippines)
  • Hong Kong Airport
  • Neom Bay Airport (Saudi Arabia) coming soon.


Sources & References