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Could Stewart International Become America’s Greenest Airport?

Kate McPhillips
The airport’s adjacency to agriculture, natural resources, and New York City make it an ideal testing ground for a more sustainable form of travel.

Anyone familiar with the term “flight shame” understands why the aviation industry needs to get greener. Yet beyond just the environmental aspects, there is a strong business case for more sustainable aviation.

New emission caps and taxes will soon raise costs for airlines and their customers even as the demand for air travel continues to grow at a staggering pace. Over the next 20 years, the number of air passengers worldwide is expected to double. This rise in air travel is already straining many airports and cities, like New York, that are dealing with near-capacity air traffic and the flight delays that come with it.

For aircraft manufacturers, airlines, and governments, the time to explore big ideas and new ways of thinking is now. The same is true for airport designers. We need to ask ourselves how smarter airport designs could mitigate the environmental impact of air travel and ease air-traffic congestion.

I believe the little-known Stewart International Airport outside of New York City offers one solution—if we’re willing to do some out-of-the-box thinking.

High-Speed Ferries

Hudson River via Juliacolton on WikiMedia Commons

Stewart lies outside of the industrial town of Newburgh, 60 miles north of Manhattan on the Hudson River. Over the years, the airport has struggled to draw airlines and passengers due to its distance from the city. Today, however, Stewart’s location could be its greatest strength.

Stewart came into being in the 1930s as an airfield for the nearby U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Over the years it has changed hands several times from state control, to private ownership to its current owner in the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. All the while, its relative proximity to New York City has brought investments uncommon to most small, regional airports. Stewart, for example, has a runway long enough to handle the world’s largest aircraft and has recently lured international airlines including Norwegian Air.

Stewart’s problem isn’t reaching it by air—or even space; its runway was a backup site for space shuttle landings. The challenge is getting there by land. Express bus shuttles from Manhattan typically take around 90 minutes. Travel times by train are even longer, requiring multiple transfers and a final bus connection.

What if we could find a solution outside of traditional land routes? Two hundred years ago, the Hudson River gave birth to Newburgh. Today that same river could provide a rebirth for both Newburgh and Stewart International Airport with new connections to the city via high-speed ferries.

The Nation’s Greenest Airport

Stewart’s location in the lush Hudson River Valley makes it easier for the airport to implement innovative strategies in addressing the climate impact of air travel. These ideas would complement New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Green New Deal, which calls on renewable sources to provide half the state’s energy needs by 2030. Reimagining the airport as a civic asset, where the investment into the building and transit becomes a catalyst for the rebirth of the region’s economy, presents a new model for sustainable economic development.

Imagine if capital from the state and Port Authority were strategically spent to turn Stewart into a net-zero airport powered by a hydroelectric plant on the banks of the Hudson. In principle, the land, water source and topography are all there to make this work. Stewart could position itself as an energy hub with on-site wind turbines and heat collection providing additional green energy for the airport and community.

Solving carbon emissions from jet fuel emissions is a major problem and new technologies, such as battery- and hydrogen-fueled aircraft, are still a way off. Until then, we could significantly offset or reduce the emissions caused from grounded planes that burn jet fuel to power themselves while boarding and unloading passengers. But that practice is old thinking. What if at Stewart, grounded planes could be powered and cooled from the same sustainable sources that fuel the airport? Essentially, idling aircraft could be plugged in the same way one powers a Tesla.

Building the nation’s greenest airport in New York City’s backyard could also open new revenue streams for the Hudson Valley. The Paris Climate Agreement, which the United States has abandoned but for which the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey remains a signatory, outlines a carbon regulation program known as CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation). CORSIA mandates that by 2020, international airlines will need to offset their growing emissions by purchasing eligible credits from cleaner businesses. If Stewart were a green airport, international airlines would have a compelling reason to make Stewart their preferred New York City airport.

Stewart’s rural setting provides it with more advantages over the Port Authority’s other airports. On any given summer’s day, the average air temperature at Stewart is five degrees cooler than it is at Newark Liberty International Airport. Those lower temperatures mean less energy required to cool planes during boarding and unloading. Stewart’s proximity to local farms, wineries and craft breweries could provide travelers with more sustainable food choices either at the airport or in-flight. “Farm-to-tray-table” anyone? With some incentives and investments, local agriculture and technology firms could lead the research and development of new biofuels for commercial jetliners.

Past Is Prologue

Yes, these ideas are audacious. Maybe even out of reach. But generations ago people said the same about constructing 92 miles of aqueducts to pipe fresh water from the Catskills to Manhattan, building the world’s largest subway or spanning the East River to create the Brooklyn Bridge.

This is New York. The grand is expected. The time to lead with big thinking is now.

Kate McPhillips is an HOK architect specializing in the design of airports and transportation hubs. This article originally appeared on her LinkedIn page and uses some material she developed as a participant in an Aerial Futures think tank on the future of Stewart International Airport.

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