A conversation on sustainability with Rotterdam The Hague Airport

As part of our ‘Is now the right time to talk about…’ series on sustainability in the aviation sector, we have been exploring some of the most important themes including space usage, flexibility in design, brand and reputation, and trying to understand their significance and role in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our objectives haven't changed”
In this article, we broaden the conversation by examining some of these themes from the airport angle. In an interview with Jan-Willem Perdon, Director Assets & Projects at Rotterdam The Hague Airport, we get an on-the-ground perspective of how one airport is facing this crisis and the future of sustainability.
A conversation on sustainability with Rotterdam The Hague Airport | NACO
Thank you for meeting with us Jan-Willem! Can we start by talking about passenger confidence – what do you think will be the most important factor in getting people flying again?

“No problem, thank you for having me. It’s a good question and I think the most important word here is ‘confidence’ – how do we gain passengers’ trust so that they’re able to safely travel and fly around the world again?

“Some of this is out of our control of course because we simply cannot manage the virus itself. But we do follow the rules and regulations to ensure social distancing, cleanliness and other safety precautions to create safe airport processes and operations. For some people, those measures put them off the idea of flying – and for others, they are simply not willing to take certain measures. What we must do, is try and create the best possible environment to alleviate those fears or concerns.

Important as well, is the harmonisation between countries and [providing] clarity to passengers regarding rules, measures and travel opportunities. The aviation sector needs to be in ‘the drivers’ seat as well, and that is what we are trying to do all the time.

“At our airport in Rotterdam, we’ve been pleased to see passenger numbers increasing again from July and our hope at that moment was that it would continue that way. Unfortunately it did not last long because parts of Europe went “orange” again and of course, with the second wave [of the COVID-19 pandemic] reaching many areas, we cannot be certain. However there is hope with the prospect of new COVID-19 vaccines coming soon. So, we have faith that we can weather the storm and have set 2023 as our marker for when we think things could be back to (a new kind of) normal in a way, in particular for a regional airport like Rotterdam.”
COVID-19 has made a lot of us reconsider how we use and experience public spaces. How have you had to adapt short-term to the pandemic, and do you see any of this continuing?

“The enforcement of social distancing has certainly made us reconsider our use of space at the airport in the short-term, but to date this has been relatively easy to realise due to the lower passenger numbers we were experiencing.

“The challenges could come if social distancing is still in place as passenger numbers increase again. This is something we are aware of – and we know we must be smart about it in order to maintain and build that passenger trust. It could mean that we need to process passengers and their luggage before they enter the terminal building, creating temporary facilities to accommodate this.

“From our perspective, we don’t stop making plans. And, as a small and lean organisation we’re flexible and ready for the potential need for temporary changes to our use of space and adaptations to our processes within our operations.

Anyway, we do believe that crises such as this are temporary and we are optimistic about the future. Regardless of the recovery, there will always be people who have never flown and wish to travel – whether that is new passengers or even entire markets. Apart from the leisure market, it is interesting to follow the recovery in business passenger numbers, since a lot of business passengers at this moment are still taking temporary measures, much the same as we are; working virtually may become more common. However, we also believe that passengers in this segment will need and want to meet physically again.

“When we’re talking about space usage we’re also talking about sustainability and creating sustainable spaces of course – and in this, like many airports, we are still committed to take our responsibility as well to contribute to a better future.”
What have developments in sustainability and flexibility – both in design, technology and the use of space – meant for you and Rotterdam The Hague Airport in recent years? What would you say have been the key drivers for this?

“Well, our sustainability and innovation projects are two areas that have not been driven completely by COVID-19. We have been busy on these projects for some time – and not just because we want to, but also because we have to; targets have been set by governments around the world to decrease emissions and make air travel more sustainable and future proof.

“As a regional airport, Rotterdam The Hague Airport (RTHA) – which is part of the Royal Schiphol Group (RSG) – also has a roadmap for sustainability that we are pursuing. We’re excited about what these various projects can bring to our airport and how they can contribute to the wider aviation industry.

“We just completed the first phase of work to give a renewed life to an important part of our terminal – the departure lounge – by creating a green roof that prevents water runoff, cuts on climate costs and that will help to keep the air clean. Because terminal operations had to continue during the project, it was not an easy task. But as a team, we all worked together and got the job done. The new departure lounge is planned to be in use soon, so our passengers can enjoy more space, daylight and comfort at our airport. We already electrified our buses at the airport some years ago but elsewhere along the runway, we are preparing work on a solar park project that will be realised in 2021.

“As an airport we can make great efforts on the ground and in partnerships. The airlines who are flying, the rest of the aviation industry and other partners must also take their responsibility so many are also launching initiatives. For example, we are co-operating with the Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) and the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) on electric-power flight. These things take time, but it’s a sign of our commitment to long-term sustainability and change in the industry.”
Have you faced any challenges in implementing or carrying forward sustainability and innovation? And, how are you trying to push innovation at Rotterdam The Hague?

“Of course we had and still have our challenges, particularly at this uncertain time. For example, the recently completed first phase of our terminal was needed primarily to resolve some of the operational bottlenecks. We completed this despite the crisis. But we already know now that even when COVID-19 is a few years behind us, we will once again experience challenges around terminal space and processes. This may mean having to look into technological innovations and investigate both digital and sustainable solutions to tackle this. However, with the ongoing impact of COVID-19, and probably for the short-term, we will not be seeing particularly high passenger numbers.

“Although we are a regional airport and operate on a smaller scale, this also presents a chance for us to bring in new initiatives and to pilot projects in the field of sustainability and innovation. We’re a perfect fit to trial new ideas, and we already have a track record in innovation. In 2019 for example, we had a living field lab in the form of the electrical ground power unit (eGPU). We also had an innovation ‘first’ in piloting flexible and sustainable autonomous vehicles for the seamless handling of individual bags inside the baggage hall. Both were tested within live airport operations in co-operation with Aviapartner and Vanderlande.

“Last year we established a foundation – Rotterdam The Hague Innovation Airport (RHIA) – in partnership with the City of Rotterdam to launch more initiatives for innovation; not just on sustainability but beyond that too. As part of this, for the past year, we have had an airport technology lab in one of our hangars. The lab can be used by aviation and non-aviation companies, such as TU Delft and NLR to work on solutions to problems, like faster and seamless passenger (automatic) flow. The drive to extend this beyond a solely aviation-based lab is because we want to connect with the region. So we support start-ups and other innovations even beyond our interests.

“Elsewhere, we are working together with students from the Albeda Rotterdam The Hague Airport College. In addition to using our labs for their innovations and work, the students can also support us for example as customer service floor-walkers in our terminal during peak times. It is a win-win situation – giving the students real experience within airport operations, while also providing them with the opportunity to push forward their ideas for the future of air travel.
We are gradually beginning to see increased attention on the role of sustainability – whether environmental, financial, or social – in relation to airport brands and reputations. Do you feel this has or will become more important to the brand and reputation of your airport, and the industry as a whole in the years to come?

“How much attention passengers are paying to airport sustainability directly is hard to tell, but certainly the public are pushing for a more sustainable society as are our governments. So airports and the aviation industry in general are driven to reflect that desire and must work together to achieve these objectives.

“For us, sustainability is one of our key strategic pillars and we’re connected with other airports within the Royal Schiphol Group to progress towards our goals and achieve a better future. While the speed of our developments might be a little slower in these rougher, more uncertain times, our objectives for 2030 and 2050 have not changed and we’re committed to continue working towards them.”
A conversation on sustainability with Rotterdam The Hague Airport | NACO
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