Many airports have diversified their offerings in the last decade,, from fast-food to first-class eateries as well as providing a variety of shopping options. But recently, airports and particularly the concession programs there have become vehicles for social improvement. They are embracing sustainability, supporting local vendors whenever possible, and helping to develop opportunities for small and disadvantaged businesses that previously might not have been able to participate in airport concession programs. Airports are taking steps to becoming better neighbors and partners in their communities.

Leading the way in sustainability efforts is San Francisco International Airport (SFO). SFO mandated guidelines several years ago for food, supplies and operations. It is the first U.S. airport to receive LEED Gold Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Some of SFO’s recent improvements include energy-efficient lighting, abundant natural light, hydration stations where travelers can refill reusable water bottles after security, and recycling and composting programs that account for 75 percent of recoverable materials. San Francisco’s airport has made enormous strides concerning air quality control. It also requires concessionaires to use raw materials from local sources whenever possible and to use recyclable packaging.

Other airports have established creative sustainability solutions, including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)’s efforts to place composting bins in the main food court, enabling passengers to sort waste. This is very important program because U.S. food scraps were the second largest contributor to municipal waste in 2010. Airports in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and Seattle all support sustainable vegetation management. They have hired goats and/or sheep to munch unwanted vegetation—decreasing landscape costs, saving fuel, reducing air pollution and providing an alternative to toxic herbicides.

Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport has begun to collect waste cooking oil and repurpose it into fuel for airfield vehicles. These efforts have created an additional bonus—vehicle exhausts smell of french fries instead of diesel!  150677944

In addition to sustainability, airport concession programs are often supporters of small businesses, including shop operators and suppliers of goods and services. There are significant barriers when doing business at airports, including higher costs to construct shops, security restrictions that impact a number of aspects of operations, and the challenge of getting and retaining good employees. The good news is that as a participant in an airports’ concession program, a small business gains access to a very large, affluent and contained market that often wants to spend money. A small business can showcase their product and brand to potentially millions of people. Also, the Federal Airport Concessions Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program (ACDBE) encourages opportunities by requiring each airport to set goals for inclusion of businesses owned by certified disadvantaged operators. Goals are set in each individual airport, and it is up to each airport operator or concessions program operator to meet the goals.

Airports and their concession partners are working hard to be agents for good and want to make a difference. A good concessions program can promote local food, art and business, as well as help to make air travel more enjoyable. The next time you travel through an airport, take a second look to see where and how your airport is embracing change.