This article is part of our special report Future of aviation: A quieter ride.
SPECIAL REPORT / When trade unionists began raising concerns about the health impact of pollution on airfield ground and service crews, including possible links to cancer, the Copenhagen Airport moved to restrict aircraft engine use and shift towards greener service vehicles.
The pollution-control efforts at CPH, as Denmark’s main airfield is known by its international location code, mark the first time a European airport has launched a programme specifically aimed at reducing the risks that ultrafine particulate matter emitted from exhaust have on workers who are on the frontline of air services.
Some of the practices have benefitted from lessons learned in reducing another form of aviation pollution – noise.
Copenhagen’s programme also offers long-term potential for reducing pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions as well as noise pollution at airports across Europe as passenger traffic grows in the years ahead.
“The motivation here is that nobody should get ill or sick from attending their work,” said Jesper A. Jacobsen, a senior environmental project manager for Copenhagen Airports S/A, the partly state-owned company that runs the main international hub at Kastrup, southeast of the capital.
“We are doing this on our own free will because we are concerned about the health implications.”
Cleaner air, quieter airports
Techniques for accurate field measurements of ultrafine particulates produced from fuel emissions are relatively new and there are no laws restricting these ground emissions at airports, Jacobsen explained.
But the battle against aviation noise is nothing new. Denmark and other EU states are obliged to control noise under a 2002 regulation that is now being revamped. The updated noise regulation, proposed by the European Commission in December 2011, will reflect advances in engine technologies since the original legislation.
It will also incorporate agreements under the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to create a “balanced approach” to noise reduction, which calls for the use of quieter aircraft, improved airport planning and operational procedures that cut noise levels in the air as well as around airfields.
Those guidelines overlap with efforts to reduce emissions. New generation engines are 16% more fuel efficient than those in the air today and engines are 75% quieter than those at the dawn of the jet age, according to the European Commission.
Reducing engine use
CPH has taken steps to improve traffic flow to reduce the time aircraft spend waiting on the runway or taxiing, and placing limits on the use of jet-fuel-run auxiliary power units (APUs), the onboard generators that provide electricity while aircraft are unloading or loading passengers.
“There are quite strict restrictions for the APU usage and they are originally induced by noise, but now we use them for air pollution abatement as well,” Jacobsen told EURACTIV in a telephone interview.
“Many of the tasks [are] just common sense. If you are reducing your fuel consumption both in the aircraft and in GSE [ground support equipment] then you are reducing air pollution and noise pollution as well,” he said.
Copenhagen Airport’s air quality programme was launched in 2010 as a response to trade union concerns linking cancer cases among employees to the air they breathe. Tests showed that airfield workers were consistently exposed to particulate pollution that exceeded the highest levels of Copenhagen’s most congested streets.
Michael Løve, the then-chief operating officer at Copenhagen Airports, referred to the health risks when CPH launched the programme.
"The latest measurements have greatly improved our knowledge of both the amount and the source of the pollution, and the conclusion is clear. We are therefore making a more targeted effort to reduce the amount of particulate matter that our employees are subjected to," Løve said in a statement.
"No one is prepared to give any specific indications as to the impact of the ultrafine particulate matter, which is one of the explanations of the lack of international threshold values in this area. Research into the health effects may take several years, and we are not prepared to sit back and wait, so we are taking action now."
The airport’s management, along with trade unions, air traffic controllers and ground services, all agreed to take steps with benefits for emissions and noise reductions in the short and long term.
Still, there has been mixed response, partly a result of conservative attitudes in the risk-averse aviation sector. Not all the airlines have embraced the rule despite the potential for fuel savings from reduced motor and generator use, and Jacobsen admitted that some pilots see the rules as a “hassle.”
Managers of other European airports, themselves under pressure to reduce pollution and noise in densely populated urban areas, have taken an interest but are also wary.
“There are other airports that are very interested in what we are doing,” Jacobsen said. “There are also airports that are a little bit afraid of addressing this fine-particle problem, and this so because it is a quite new problem.
“I think we are regarded as the front-running in this,” Jacobsen said. “A lot of airport are addressing the CO2 problems, trying to reduce CO2, and by doing so you are also reducing air pollution. So a lot of airports of actually working with this but not with the aim of reducing ultrafine particles.”