Climate Change Adaption for Airports

author list icon

London Luton Airport and Cardiff Airport Commissioned Parsons Brinckerhoff (now part of WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff) to help them identify how resilient their organizations and operations are to future climate change impacts.


In 2011, the U.K. government mandated all reporting authorities (organisations with functions of a public nature and statutory undertakers) to complete a climate change adaptation report. Parsons Brinckerhoff (now part of WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff) helped Cardiff and Luton airports develop a risk assessment methodology to identify the preparedness of their operations and assets for potential climate change impacts. The output was a prioritised risk assessment and adaptation action plan that met with U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reporting requirements, and supported the U.K. government with developing its first national adaptation plan.

An Understanding of Climate Change and the Potential Impacts on Infrastructure and Its Management

flooding carriagewayFigure 1– August 2006, heavy rain and poor drainage causes flooding of the carriageway (M25 J11 - 12)climate change wind truckFigure 2 – Jan. 2008, High winds overturn HGVS (M25 J29)

During the last 8 years, the U.K. has witnessed some of the most severe weather events on British record (see figures 1 and 2). Summer flood events in 2007 caused widespread disruption, economic loss, and social distress, resulting in a national catastrophe being declared by the government. The Environment Agency estimated national losses at £4 billion1, of which £674 million of damages were to ‘important national infrastructure’ and the operation of essential services.

In December 2010, the ‘big freeze’ caused the economy to shrink by 0.5 percent in the last three months of 2010 (see figures 3 and 4), whilst in January 2013 snowfall across the U.K. cost the economy an estimated £470 million a day, based on unprecedented travel disruption2.

In response, the U.K. government recognised that a national adaptation programme (NAP) was required to identify the preparedness of major industry sectors for climate change impacts. Within the NAP infrastructure review, all reporting authorities - including the aviation sector - were mandated to prepare a climate change adaptation report which stated how resilient their organisation and operations are to future climate change impacts. The output of the reports was of significance to the U.K. government, as it used all reports to underpin the U.K.’s first climate change risk assessment3.

London Luton Airport Operations Limited (LLAOL) and Cardiff Airport (CA) commissioned WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff to help them understand the requirements, assess their readiness, and present this back to government.

Challenges and Innovation

Defra recognised that each climate change adaptation report would be unique to the operations of reporting authorities. As such, a reporting framework was issued but a specific risk assessment methodology was not prescribed. Without a set of guidelines for the report, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff needed to develop a methodology that would provide a transparent, robust, and consistent methodology for both airports. To overcome this challenge, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff worked collaboratively to produce a process that assisted LLAOL and Cardiff Airport to:

  • understand the likely impacts of climate change in their local areas;
  • identify the airports’ assets and operations which were vulnerable to these impacts;
  • assess the significance of vulnerabilities through developing a risk prioritisation tool;
  • produce a risk register;
  • identify adaptation measures for prioritised impacts, resulting in a climate change adaptation plan; and
  • produce a report for Defra and other interested stakeholders.

Risk Reduction Strategies

Using climate change projections from U.K. Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP)4, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff developed a risk assessment methodology that aligned with the broader risk management processes already used by the airports’ parent group, TBI/Abertis. This ensured the airports benefited from an approach that effectively embedded climate change risk assessment into their current business processes, environmental management systems, and decision-making protocols, and one that had the potential to inform policy change. The methodology was applied to help the airports understand how climate change risks could potentially impact the following key business areas:

  • Air Traffic Control
  • Airfield Operations
  • Terminal
  • Cargo
  • Fire Service
  • Surface Access – roads and carparks
  • Office & Markets
climate change snow airportFigure 3– Extreme weather events at Cardiff Airport during 2010’s ‘Big Freeze’(Vereshchagin Dmitry/

Use of Expert Knowledge

Gaining key staff and stakeholder buy-in was critical in effectively appraising risks, and identifying areas of the airports’ assets and operations that were threatened by potential impacts.

Drawing on previous work completed for the U.K. Highways Agency climate change portfolio, WSP | Parsons Brinkerhoff knew that ‘expert knowledge’ would likely come from unexpected sources. In this case, staff who worked ‘on the ground’ knew how the business and its operations become affected throughout the seasons, and offered invaluable perspective and insight when considering impacts. They held important information about the day-to-day operation and maintenance of assets that may otherwise have been overlooked, or simply not have been important historically – but have real relevance when looking forward.

We accessed the information they held through organising a climate change risk assessment workshop at each airport. Working collaboratively, key staff agreed and scored potential climate change impacts and identified mitigation measures.

Engaging with external stakeholders was also important for demonstrating that managing interdependencies with external organisations was a key part of adapting to climate change. At Luton Airport, for example, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff supported engagements with Luton Borough Council, National Air Traffic Services, and surface water drainage engineers Veolia, as areas of Luton Airport’s access roads were known to be prone to flooding. The flooding causes access issues for airport customers and traffic build-up on local highways, and so future flood events were found to be high risk for the airport. Interdependent work with local highways experts and drainage engineers will be vital for maintaining access to the airport, and the surrounding road network.

The Impact of WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Solution on the Project

The outcome of the consultation exercise and workshop was a risk appraised adaptation action plan, including a prioritised set of risks and actions to help increase the resilience of the airports to the impacts of climate change. Responsibilities for actions were also assigned to named staff. The ten most significant risks were identified for both airports and included threats to airfield operations, airport terminal operations, and National Air Traffic Services (NATS), as shown in Figure 5.

In addition to a quantified risk assessment and action plan, the approach that WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff implemented benefitted both airports by fostering better relations between the owning company and local stakeholders. For example, since our involvement Luton Airport has spearheaded a climate change stakeholder group, gaining buy-in from local authorities and interest groups.

The Financial Costs of Adaptation

The U.K. National Adaptation Programme estimates that, across Europe, every £1 spent on increasing resilience now could yield £4 in damages avoided5. Identifying and taking early action is therefore imperative for ensuring adaptation actions are affordable and worthwhile.

Both Luton and Cardiff Airports appraised the risk of climate change against the financial and reputational impacts to their businesses, and the ability to deliver services to stakeholder expectations. In addition, reviewing the investment in capital projects, existing equipment capabilities, and liaising closely with stakeholders (including NATS and the Met Office) were all significant on-going actions identified through WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s risk assessment and management process.

climate change snow airportFigure 4– Snowfall grounds planes across the U.K.’s airports during the 2010 ‘Big Freeze’

The Meaning of the new technology or Technique to WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff and the State-of-the-art of the Industry

The climate change adaptation frameworks and risk assessment methodologies WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff delivered resulted in our gaining a more precise knowledge of using and applying climate data. We are now able to integrate risk assessments directly into business values and targets and align them with embedded management systems. This makes it easier for staff to adopt, understand, implement, and take ownership of the risk assessment process - therefore making the process for building resilience more effective, workable, and successful.

Having evolved the climate change adaptation framework developed for the Highways Agency (2007-2008) for the airport sector, our methodologies are demonstrably flexible and easily updated for other industry sectors. Not only do we deliver the process for preparing infrastructure assets and operations for climate change impacts, we are also able to supply engineering solutions on the ground.

The current Status of the Project, Technique, and Technology

The information in our report was submitted to Defra in 2012 and subsequently used, along with other adaptation reports, to form the U.K. Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA). The U.K. CCRA sets out the framework for the U.K. to adapt for climate change, and is the first in a five year cycle of updates. It sets out the main priorities for adaptation in the U.K. and describes the policy context and action already in place to tackle some of the risks in each area. The next phase is for the U.K. government to undertake another round of reporting in 2017, and we are well-placed to support our clients with meeting any new requirements and criteria.

climate change snow airportFigure 5 – Adaptation action plans for key business areas for Cardiff Airport




3U.K. Climate Change Risk Assessment


5U.K. National Adaptation Programme 2013

back to top