Air quality

Like all industries, aviation has a local effect on the areas surrounding its activities

In the immediate vicinity of airports, emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matter (PM) are usually considered the most important contributors to local air quality concerns. The contribution of other trace emissions such as sulphur dioxide (SO2), hydroxyl radicals, nitrous and nitric acids, still requires better understanding but is currently believed to be negligible.


According to the International Aerospace Industries Association (ICCAIA), technical developments since the 1960s mean today’s new aircraft emit 50% less carbon monoxide and 90% less smoke and unburned hydrocarbons than they did 50 years ago.

Nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels have also been cut, and modern aircraft now emit 40% less NOx than in 1981. As a result of these efficiency increases, aircraft can often have a smaller impact on local air quality around airports than road traffic. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) sets standards for NOx emissions and regularly tightens these for each new generation of aircraft. However, there is still work to be done and the industry has a number of projects underway to further reduce its effects around airports.

Limiting the impact

Providing electrical power and pre-conditioned air to aircraft at terminal gates allows aircraft to switch off their auxiliary power units (APU), reducing fuel burn and pollutants. Reducing taxiing and queuing times can be achieved by construction of more direct taxiways, holding aircraft at the gate until departure slots are ready and the relief of congestion in general. At some airports in Europe, older aircraft with high NOx ratings are being charged higher landing fees than cleaner aircraft.

Other measures taken by airports include modernising ground service equipment (GSE) and vehicle fleets by using more efficient and less polluting vehicles. In the public areas, many airports have introduced measures to reduce road traffic, improve ground traffic flow and encourage less polluting methods of transport to and from the airport.

Changes at airports to limit emissions are already happening, as many airports are building or enhancing mass transit lines into cities, replacing buses and maintenance vehicles with hybrid and hydrogen-powered ones, and optimising transport options for the many thousands of people employed at airports.


In the meantime, the aircraft and engine manufactures are continuing to target further aircraft emission reductions, including an additional 80% cut in NOx by 2020. Airports are working with the aircraft and engine manufacturers to further reduce emissions and noise impacts on local communities.

In addition, the gains in efficiency that the industry is targeting, in its move to reduce fuel consumption and cut the emission of greenhouse gases, will also lead to a further reduction in pollutants such as NOx and carbon monoxide.

Find out more about noise impact from aircraft »

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