Stuart Ainslie, HB Airport CEO. Photo: Tom Allan

In the 2018-19 financial year, more than 750,000 passengers moved through Hawke’s Bay Airport (HBAL) and every year around 400,000 visitors will come through the doors and 20,000 aircraft will land on its runways, numbers earning it the title of third busiest airport in the North Island and seventh busiest nationally.

Passenger numbers dropped in the 2019-2020 financial year to just over 541,000 due to Covid interruptions – the worst month saw just 149 passengers use the airport. However, Covid was not the only challenge HBAL faced in 2020. Its terminal expansion plans were put on hold following the voluntary administration of lead contractor, Arrow International; Jetstar ceased its regional services; and Airways announced its intention to withdraw staff from Hawke’s Bay’s control tower. 

Despite these challenges, HBAL is moving forward and the airport is still regarded as an important economic enabler for the region. Expanding its physical footprint while simultaneously reducing its carbon footprint is a feat being piloted by airport CEO, Stuart Ainslie. 

“It’s still a challenging environment, there’s no denying that,” says Stuart. “While the airport is not immune to the effects of natural disasters including pandemics, we are a resilient business and a driver of economic recovery. 

“In general, the airports that better weathered the 2020 storm did so because of a diversified revenue mix not solely based on aeronautical activities. Whilst no planes or passengers equals no aircraft landing fees or passenger parking charges, it is essential that our future revenue diversification such as solar and commercial property minimise the effects that we’ve seen from the recent pandemic. Focusing on this we can ensure that we are able to move forward with our plans to be come carbon neutral and New Zealand’s most sustainable airport.”

Carbon neutrality and sustainability are terms used in high rotation in any conversation with Stuart. Carbon neutral refers to balancing the amount of emitted greenhouse gases (carbon emissions) with equivalent emission offsets or sequestration (carbon storage). While several other New Zealand airports have been on their sustainability journey for a decade or more, HBAL has just left the starting blocks. 

Carbon emissions from airports (as opposed to aeroplanes) are surprisingly low, despite the aviation industry often attracting negative headlines about its carbon footprint (however, see Charles Daugherty’s article in this issue on international air travel!). Domestic aviation contributes just over 3% of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, airports contribute less than 5% of aviation emissions and in New Zealand, this is likely to be even less as the country utilises more renewable electricity sources. Over the last three years, HBAL’s carbon emissions have been less than 50 tonnes per year. Putting that in perspective, the average annual emissions per person in New Zealand are around 18 tonnes. 

A large portion of the emissions at HBAL come from sources not directly controlled by the company, including fuel used in aircraft during take-off and landing, passenger ground access, contractor vehicles, waste to landfill, staff travel and water consumption. 

“We recognise that our current emissions are comparatively low compared to other infrastructure organisations, but we are also very keen to do what we can to reduce the impacts of climate change – both in Hawke’s Bay and across the globe.”

In order to get to a neutral carbon status, Stuart says sustainability must be embedded in every HBAL activity and project, and external providers and partners must also be aligned with the philosophy.

“The carbon economy is now part of everyday conversations. We have a unique opportunity to set the tone now for any future developments and it’s vital our sustainability strategy and objectives are entrenched in everything we do. For example, any future land development will be done with the expectation it will align with our sustainability strategy.”

HBAL is integrating decarbonisation into all its asset and efficiency planning with an aptly named Decarbonisation Plan, which has identified more than 38 projects and initiatives ranging from small operational changes to large scale projects. One such initiative has been to join the international Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA) programme.

ACA is the international gold standard for airport carbon management and the certification recognises an airport’s commitment to emissions reduction, climate change mitigation and sustainable development. More than 330 airports around the world have joined the programme including London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. In New Zealand, HBAL is one of only five airports that has committed to the ACA.

“We could have benchmarked ourselves in our own back yard, but we decided to do it on a global standard and joining the ACA programme is a key driver for us to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030. It’s a stringent process with everything verified by independent and qualified experts. It shows that our commitment to sustainability is more than just words – we’re actually on the way to making a real difference.”

Recently, HBAL achieved Level 2 ACA certification which required the airport to show that it had made meaningful change in its emissions. And it had. Every passenger’s carbon emissions were reduced by 12% through a range of initiatives including switching to 100% renewable and CarboNZero-certified electricity as well as moving away from fossil-fuel run vehicles, adding electric and hybrid vehicles into its fleet of safety vehicles and fire appliances as older vehicles are retired. 

Stuart is now looking ahead to the next level of certification. 

“Achieving Level 3 requires us to look beyond our own operation, so the next phase for us is really about partnerships. We’ll be working with our tenants and contractors to help bring their emissions down, and we’ll also be looking to key partners in our community to collaborate on some larger-scale projects. 

“We are working hard to integrate sustainable solutions right across our operations but also to go above and beyond – our investigations into the feasibility of a solar farm is a great example of that.” 

As reported previously, the project is a joint venture between HBAL and Centralines, who are currently scoping out the feasibility of building a large-scale solar farm on HBAL land, and if green-lighted, construction would start in 2022. Carbon emissions from electricity usage, which is the primary internal source contributing to the airport’s carbon footprint, would be offset and the project has the potential to supply the airport with 100% renewable energy. If the decision is made to proceed, the farm would occupy between five and 20 hectares of land and is estimated to generate between 10% and 20% of New Zealand’s current solar power. 

“This return provides obvious environmental outcomes and will also provide significant renewable energy to export back into the grid. We would also need to offset indirect emissions so longer-term we’d be interested in exploring its use to supply our current and future tenants,” says Stuart. 

HBAL has also adopted a ‘sustainability framework’, which underpins its desire to “build back better”; the structure supporting the business’s growth. 

“Traditionally, sustainability was only referred to in an environmental context. We have expanded that to include operational efficiency, social responsibility and financial return. A healthy and prosperous airport is great for Hawke’s Bay as a whole and will lean into the regional economy.” 

Stuart has started some preliminary work looking across three strategic pathways: aeronautical, property and renewable resources. 

“It’s important because we’re sitting on 223 hectares of land and need to take a business approach to the whole land mass to realise its commercial potential over the longer term and the economic impact for the region.”

The multi-million-dollar revamped airport terminal is due to welcome its first visitors mid-year. Many aspects of the new building are in line with HBAL’s sustainability vision. 

“Increasing the terminal size from 2,500m2 to 4,340m2 while simultaneously trying to reduce emissions has meant improvements in both simple and complex ways. We’ve introduced a raft of efficiency improvements including a new waste management system, a more efficient heating and cooling system and sensor-controlled lighting. Other fixes are simpler, like installing automatic taps to reduce water waste and hot air hand driers in the bathrooms that use the new renewable ‘ecotricity’ and avoid paper waste. We are also working with our partners and suppliers – an example of this is Bay Espresso, our new café tenant to reduce single use plastic.”

Outside, the car park will soon have upgraded solar and LED lighting and the company is currently looking at installing EV charging stations. 

“We are committed to new technology and solutions, but they must be in line with the region’s transport strategy. We’re talking with the Regional Council about its vision for transport and getting people to the airport. We might see more car sharing, more EVs or buses. It’s about looking at how people use our facilities and making sure we’ve got the right services in place. But all the while keeping commercial balance and reality.”

HBAL continues to work closely with Biodiversity Hawke’s Bay to improve its surrounding wildlife habitats and a new Bikeport has just opened that will connect to the region’s cycleways. 

A partnership between Willis Legal, HBAL, HBRC, HB Trails and EECA (the government’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority), the Bikeport will provide a place for locals and travellers alike to stop, park, assemble, maintain or fix their bikes. There’s also charging capability for e-bikes. “The region’s cycleways go right past our door so this is a facility that everyone, not just airport users, can access,” says Stuart.

Airlines also have skin in the carbon neutral game. HBAL has already had conversations with airlines about how to reduce carbon emissions. “Maybe there’s an opportunity to do something cutting edge like emission-free ground services or supplying electric power solutions. We are open to all discussions.”

Stuart says HBAL has made “good progress” but recognises it’s only the beginning of the carbon neutral journey.

“When it comes to creating a greener future for Hawke’s Bay, we want to show that we can address climate-related risk and resilience while also growing our regional economy.” 

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