Q&A: Flying for Net Zero


Without a doubt these are challenging times for the aviation sector. In 2020, due to the coronavirus outbreak, global air traffic passenger decreased by 60.9%. And some airlines have used this crisis as an opportunity to permanently convert passenger jets into freighters in response to the tremendous ecommerce boom. Despite this setback the aviation sector was growing strongly before the pandemic and is expected to continue to resume growth in the coming years. Travel is a vital part of modern life and while many have accepted the temporary need to suspend the pursuit, there is also the desire to resume pre-Covid travel patterns in many part of the globe. The most recent estimates had suggested that demand for air transport would increase by an average of 4.3% per annum over the next 20 years.


A significant challenge to designers working in this sector is how can we pursue both our commitment to net zero future, and a quality passenger experience?


We recently met with Woods Bagot aviation leader Richard Spencer and Senior Interior Design Leader Katy Mercer to discuss whether the ambitious goal of net zero is possible and whether it would destroy the passenger experience.

The UK aviation sector, along with major European aviation hub operators, has committed to being net by 2050. If 100 million extra passengers are added into the air each year, can the aviation industry really go net zero by 2050? Or is it just greenwash?

Richard Spencer (RS): There are good intentions out there and a serious commitment about meeting those goals as a result – but getting to carbon neutral by 2050 is completely missing the boat. If we wait that long, we’re in deep trouble.

Katy Mercer (KM): Yes, 30 years is almost half a lifetime already!

RS: Right! So, rather than giving the industry this ‘half lifetime’ amount of time, we need to do what we can with what we have, right now. It’s not about planning for 2050, it’s about aiming for as soon as viably possible. People my age can say, “Well, I don’t really care because by 2050 I won’t be around,” but it’s not us we should be thinking about – it’s future generations.

The roadmap to net zero can be thought about in three parts: Long haul, short haul and airport infrastructure. The good news is that if we start on the ground and look at airport infrastructure first, we can achieve net zero now.  In fact, some airports have already achieved the kind of carbon neutrality we’re aiming for via the use of electric ground vehicles, lowered energy consumptions, solar panels and off-airport renewable energy sources.

“The roadmap to net zero can be thought about in three parts: Long haul, short haul and airport infrastructure. The good news is that if we start on the ground and look at airport infrastructure first, we can achieve net zero now.”

Richard Spencer

Harvey Milk Terminal at San Francisco Airport.

KM: Buildings can be designed to perform more efficiently from an energy consumption perspective. For example, San Francisco Airport’s  Harvey Milk Terminal 1 – is net zero ready.  So is our design for MSC South, a concourse at LAX, and our design for Seatac’s C1 building. Luleå, Ronneby and Visby airports in Sweden have already achieved net zero, and over fifty airports in Europe have achieved Level 3+ Airport Carbon Accreditation.

RS: It’s in the air that we have more work to do. I am optimistic that carbon neutral short haul flights (1 to 2 hours) will be possible in 10 to 15 years given current developments in electric planes and hydrogen fuel. Long haul (3 hours +) is where the real challenge lies, and really where industry efforts could be more focused. Perhaps this is where offsets should be focused, and where we should look to curtail traffic growth to keep within a sustainable carbon budget.

KM:  It takes more than saying you’ll do something to get it done. For example, airport operators need to commit to using electric vehicles over just installing electric chargers, and research into synthetic and sustainable jet fuel needs to be in order to make a more significant difference. Airports and airlines need to commit to implementing these sustainable technologies as fast as they appear – we don’t want innovation to fall at the hurdle of implementation.

RS: If we have a commitment to implementation guaranteed by the aviation sector and government, then we firm up the timeline to net zero. There are already electric plane prototypes being flown, and Airbus has an alternative fueled net zero aircraft that could carry out shorter flights. The hardest task – solving the puzzle of sustainable long haul flying – requires the most time and attention.

“Airports and airlines need to commit to implementing these sustainable technologies as fast as they appear – we don’t want innovation to fall at the hurdle of implementation.”

Katy Mercer

How can a growing industry plan to reduce its annual footprint from just over 36 million tonnes of CO2 globally to net zero in three decades time?

RS: Necessity breeds invention. With the unpleasant fact that Earth Overshoot Day – the date when humanity exhausts nature’s carbon budget for the year and then heads into ecological deficit – breathes hotter on our necks each trip around the sun, the realities of our consumption are impossible to ignore. We’re on a runaway train, and it will take a great deal of innovation from multiple sectors to get off. But we have to be positive about what we can achieve to have any hope of success.

For the architecture and design industry, solutions in the aviation sector come largely in the form of ensuring that the infrastructure at airports supports our sustainability goals. For example,  330 airports around the world have joined the airport carbon Accreditation program, working first towards carbon neutrality and then to net zero.  Every airport project Woods Bagot has worked on in North America has had being either net zero or net zero ready as a future goal.  Dallas Fort Worth Airport, the world’s busiest airport through much of the pandemic, is committed to a net zero 2030 vision.  So, there are signs of healthy progress on the ground.

Speaking more widely, the industry needs to look at using (and supporting the further invention of) more efficient planes, and synthetic and sustainable jet fuel. Flight paths can also be reassessed for fuel savings.

KM: It’s also about reframing travel so that passengers are more inclined to make sustainable choices. The temptation for travelers to lean into holiday mode and forget the longer-lasting impacts of overconsumption at the airport is real. Simple steps like the regulation of unnecessary food waste via a requirement for passengers to ‘opt in’ to having a meal during a flight offers the freedom to decide against consuming what isn’t necessary.

Similarly, moving from gas cooking to all-electric will spare the consumption of natural gas at airports – making quite the impact when we consider they cater for around 25,000 people, 5 times a day.  At SFO, we ensured the installation of easy to find taps for refillable water bottles, opportunities to say no to packaging in food and retail, and visible composting stations also provide welcome reminders and easy outlets to act with sustainability in mind.

It’s important to remember how beautiful these spaces are. The idea that sustainability is the enemy of comfort or abundance is a myth. Inspired by the beautiful natural world we’re attempting to save, there’s no reason that airports can’t be celebrations of the natural world that they’ve made a commitment to protect.

“We’re on a runaway train, and it will take a great deal of innovation from multiple sectors to get off.”

Richard Spencer

Cocktail bar, Qantas lounge at London’s Heathrow Airport.

In the face of mounting scrutiny, should the industry be doing more and could they be doing a better job of communicating its green strategies?

KM: Everyone – from the scale of a single passenger to the biggest business conglomerate – needs to do more. Speaking broadly, the aviation industry can address its impact by finding ways to demonstrate their accountability – becoming more transparent in the ways they make efforts in order to keep our carbon offset goals at front of mind.

From the person travelling once every few years to the biggest airport on the face of the planet, there needs to be visible and measurable evidence of the steps we’re taking to minimize negative environmental impacts. In order to offset their travel, travelers should be able to know the exact impact their trip makes on the environment. At the point of purchase there could be a carbon calculator that processes their choices and lets consumers see their carbon footprint. Passengers can only manage and make better choices once they see the data.

RS: Really, the biggest lever we have to encourage change in the airline industry is money. The taxation of aviation fuel globally will curb unnecessary travel. If airlines charged the real cost – perhaps with an added detail of increasing tax according to how many flights taken in a year – perhaps travelers would find alternate ways of traveling (rail, bus). Consumers could be given a clearer means of opting between saving the planet and air travel at some level.

The Wanderer

Hungry to see the world, Wanderers fly as frequently as they can to see as much as they can. Less concerned with getting “from A to B” than other traveller types, The Wanderer will spend as much of their lives as possible away from their home base – with some having none at all. Driven by curiosity, Wanderers will spend as much time in the air as is needed to satisfy their disposition to roam.

The Professional

The consummate traveller the business traveller seeks ways to maximize convenience and relies heavily on technology to customize their travel requirements and to stay connected to professional and personal commitments. A seasoned multi-tasker the Professional relies on travel to maintain existing and develop new commercial relationships. That being said the professional is interested in identifying ways to reduce the environmental impact of their travel.

The Ethicist

Ethicists are sustainably-minded and make travel decisions based on the planets’ future health. Mindful of their carbon footprint, Ethicists take a “won’t set off if I can’t offset” attitude to travel – taking more sustainable modes of transport where possible and considering the frequency their time in the air. Research suggests that a great majority of Generation Z are Ethicists.

The Devotee

The Devotee is fiscally and emotionally selective about when and where they choose to travel. As infrequent travellers who only opt to travel for special occasions, they carefully plan ahead to make the most of their time and travel experience. Special occasions might include family events, a destination holiday or attending a once in a lifetime event. As memory curators it is not uncommon for the Devotee to collect local mementos to document the unique occasion.

“Everyone – from the scale of a single passenger to the biggest business conglomerate – needs to do more.”

Katy Mercer

Should we as sustainability-minded designers be aiming to create the highest standard of passenger experience as a sustainable one? Are future travelers demanding this of the industry and others?

KM: Absolutely. The demand from younger generations – Gen Z and Millennials – for services that reflect their values is only growing. From my perspective as a designer, passenger experience can go hand in hand with a commitment to sustainability. A great passenger experience is one that supports what travelers care about, so an airport that facilitates the aim of a carbon neutral future is the best kind for designers to build, airlines to commission, and passengers to use.

It’s easy to imagine a future where this level of environmental accountability is celebrated more widely – passengers could share and track their impacts and offsetting on social media, and airports can do the same. I think future passengers will agree that doing good is worth the money. 

RS: The future of travel requires transparency and accountability. It’s expected that many travelers will choose rail when they can, with airports like Paris Airport going as far as signing a non-compete agreement with train operators.

We know that the construction of buildings is detrimental in terms of carbon emission. As a result, designers need to ensure airports are sustainable throughout their lifetime – even once they outlive their use. Biodegradable materials, modular elements that can be repurposed and more will all make a big impact.  None of these measures should have any negative impact on the passenger experience.

KM: The future sustainable airport is seamless, frictionless, organic and local. App-based technology will allow you to check in from your home, have your luggage collected from your door and meet you at the hotel, and – thanks to seamless check-in technology making processing time more predictable – enjoy being outside in fresh air as you wait for your flight. ‘Localness’ will be ramped up – supporting local businesses, showcasing local materials, and designing with a sense of place are all to be expected.

“A great passenger experience is one that supports what travelers care about, so an airport that facilitates the aim for carbon neutrality and supports the type of future is the best kind for designers to build, airlines to commission, and passengers to use.”

Katy Mercer

Perth Airport departures expansion.

Qantas Base Building Sydney International Airport.

What are some of the greatest challenges that the sector faces and what are some of the greatest opportunities? Who is leading the way, airports and airlines, when it comes to achieving net zero and seamless passenger experiences?

RS: The challenge lies in the disconnection between the excitement of growth (we put 100 million extra passengers through our airports in 2019), and our responsibility to protect the planet.

A silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic’s halt on international travel is older aircraft that were not fuel efficient being retired. Many airports have been able to make upgrades that reduce their carbon impact.

As the world speeds back into gear, it’s important that we don’t put a good crisis to waste. I’m a firm believer in the value of international air travel in terms of connecting us as citizens of the world and promoting cooperation globally at a human level, but we should have a carbon budget, and we ought to decide what is an appropriate allocation of carbon budget to long haul international travel.

KM: In terms of who is leading the way, I think it’s important to note that some places are better equipped to invest in the infrastructure – you need both the will AND the technology.  It is incumbent on all of us to better educate ourselves, and our partners, so that we can work together as a sector and as a society to commit to sustainable air travel operations and experiences.

“As the world speeds back into gear, it’s important that we don’t put a good crisis to waste.”

Richard Spencer

Richard Spencer is a British Chartered Architect with 37 years of experience in architectural practices around the world.

Richard has been a practice principal for 25 years, including 19 leading aviation and transportation on a global spread of projects. Having become an expert in this field through his involvement in many landmark projects, Richard has spoken extensively at airport conferences, published articles and been interviewed on TV discussing airport design and development.

Richard is a past president of the American Institute of Architects UK Chapter and is currently serving on the board of the AIA’s International Region. In addition to his work in transportation, Richard has a broad range of experience gained on many substantial and successful projects in other fields. 

Katy Mercer is a principal in the San Francisco studio. She brings 15 years of experience practicing architecture and design both locally and internationally. As a Senior Interior Design Leader, Katy has a strong sense of innovative concepts, strategic programming, cohesive stakeholder engagement, and advanced detailing. Her ability to build and nurture strong client relationships adds value to any project team.

Katy has worked on a variety of project types throughout her career, including workplace interiors, aviation and transportation, higher education, hospitality, and high-end residential. Her most recent focus blurs hospitality, residential and workplace influences across all sectors to create a meaningful and memorable experience for the user.