Farnborough Airport: Why green is the favourite colour

Steeped in aviation history, Farnborough Airport aims to point the way ahead to a more sustainable future. Words: Yves Le Marquand

Green goals: Farnborough continues to reduce and offset carbon – from its fuel supply chain to the lightbulbs in its buildings and hangars.

FARNBOROUGH HELPED TO pioneer European aviation by hosting the first powered flight in Britain, courtesy of US Wild West showman Samuel Franklin Cody in 1908. More than a century later, Farnborough Airport is still at the leading edge.

Home to an airfield (for balloons) since 1905, Farnborough was operated by the Ministry of Defence until the 1990s. During the past 20 years, the airport has changed almost beyond recognition, both in its physical structure and its approach to operations.

Farnborough reached net zero two years ago, meaning carbon emissions have been reduced as much as possible and what cannot be reduced to zero is offset via alternative means. Farnborough continues to reduce and offset carbon – from heating, lighting, vehicles and all other sources from the business.

Farnborough’s head of Sustainability & Planning, Miles Thomas knows the airport’s journey well. It has been his job to oversee Farnborough’s transition to sustainability. Corporate Jet Investor set out to learn why Farnborough Airport has prioritised sustainability; and how he believes Britain’s oldest airport still in operation can point the way to a greener, more sustainable future.

“Being certified as carbon neutral, which we did through a certified scheme [in 2018], our Airport Carbon Accreditation, is just part of the bigger picture,” said Thomas. “There are all of the other aspects of sustainability to consider as well, such as: Air quality, noise in the community, related annoyance, pollution prevention and biodiversity. Once you have made a public commitment to address these areas, you must follow through with actions.”

After publishing Farnborough Airport’s plan for sustainability, Thomas said it took a decade of work to focus on all areas set out to ensure they were at the standard required: “One of the key moves we made was, in 2009, to commit to certifying to ISO 14001, the international standard that allows you to take control of all the environmental impacts of your business. Then, [it is about] managing them and reducing them. And the goal is to achieve continual improvement and reduce that impact.”

Thomas learnt early in his role that data was essential to judge progress. There needs to be a benchmark against which all future improvements can be measured. Farnborough Airport commissioned the Carbon Trust to set that benchmark in 2009 as the 10-year plan started. Its environmental assessment analyses every aspect of energy performance and efficiency, before recommending improvements.

“That covers everything from really simple lagging of heating pipes to investment in serious renewable infrastructure. That gave us a great start because then we felt we had a good idea about what we could do immediately, what we could do ourselves on site, and what needed further work. We also learned what we needed to record, which enabled us to put in monitoring systems to find all the data we need to get that first footprint together.”

Farnborough Airport first calculated a carbon footprint in 2009. “And then, it was a three-pronged approach on making reductions. Using technology, procedure and training.

“It is the technology that most people find interesting – particularly all the different pieces of equipment that you can bring in to help make reductions. At the same time, we are aware that good procedures and staff training are essential for managing the interactions with technology.

“The ISO 14001 standard helped us. With that you can develop policies that sit right at the top of the company and promulgate the direction you're taking. That means every level is communicating with each other on what the issues are, how they're overcoming them and what the overall target is.”

Thomas is keen to ensure Farnborough Airport continues to maintain the standards it has set itself over the past decade into the next. He knows that there is always more to be done, not just at Farnborough but across the sector to tackle sustainability, but he thinks that co-operation within the industry is beginning to overcome that.

“There are operators, FBOs [Fixed Base Operators] and airports that are technically in competition, but they're all coming together to address the challenges we all want to address because it's really important for our industry that we work to improve environmental performance and sustainability. I think we'll see a lot more unity in the industry over the next 10 years rather than pockets of different players doing their own work. I think we'll start to move together cohesively. That's quite an exciting prospect for me.”

“We hosted a fuelling the future event here, which introduced SAF to a range of people.”

“Technology is continually developing. We all have a responsibility to make sure we stay on the leading edge so that when those opportunities arise, we can take them”: Miles Thomas.

One such way the industry could benefit from even greater cooperation, according to Thomas, is the supply of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). “We hosted a fuelling the future event here, which introduced SAF to a range of people in the industry. For that event, the fuel was shipped over from the States. So, it went by truck, by sea and then further by truck, which really outlined some of the hurdles to be overcome at this stage.

“We're involving ourselves in these kind of events and building a network of communications with people who are making changes in the industry. Our desire is to make sure that when solutions are found, we are ready to move. We don't want to be a barrier.”

Part of the continuation in standards for Farnborough is the airport’s continued aspiration to reach carbon zero – the point at which no carbon is produced by any operation. Thomas oversaw the attainment of carbon neutrality in 2018 via Airport Carbon Accreditation, which he explains as reducing business-related emissions to the greatest possible extent and offsetting residual emissions.

“Having achieved carbon neutrality, we remain committed to further reducing our carbon footprint and the level of offsetting required each year.”

Thomas added: “Technology is continually developing. We all have a responsibility to make sure we stay on the leading edge so that when those opportunities arise, we can take them.”

For Farnborough Airport then, there has always been a clear understanding that environmental performance is high on the agenda. While safety and security will always have top priority, at Farnborough, environmental management is also highly valued: “This is demonstrated by the fact that for many years, we have had an environment manager in place.

“In other organisations, you might find the role is combined with health and safety compliance. Or, it's quite a new role in the company. At Farnborough Airport there has always been an environment manager. This demonstrates our commitment in this field to both our stakeholders and the wider community and that we take our environmental responsibilities very seriously”.

In a time when fears surrounding climate change are compounding public criticism of the world’s most visible industries, people only have to look to the skies, Covid-19 aside, to see the aviation industry operating overhead. And whilst only contributing 4% of all aviation emissions, business aviation is, more-often-than-not, in the front line for media criticism.

Farnborough’s progress towards that goal is becoming widely recognised. In September 2019 Farnborough Airport was named the winner of the inaugural Energy and Carbon Transition Award, granted by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA). Beating competition from six other leading brands, including engineering and development consultancy Mott MacDonald and insurance company Aviva, the judges praised the airport’s success in what they described as a “challenging category”.

So, Farnborough truly is at the leading edge of implementing top environmental management standards. How fitting that an airfield so intimately involved in aviation’s past should make sustainable business aviation such a key part of its future. ■

Towering achievement: Farnborough Airport was named the winner of the inaugural Energy and Carbon Transition Award by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment in September 2019.

CJI Connect

Miles Thomas

Head of Sustainability & Planning

Farnborough Airport


Yves Le Marquand, Reporter, Corporate Jet Investor

Yves Le Marquand, Reporter, Corporate Jet Investor