FALL 2017

Sustainability on the Wing: Duke alum spearheads environmental change at Los Angeles Airports

by Lisa M. Dellwo, photos by Casey Brodley

A big metropolitan airport like Los Angeles International Airport might seem to be an environmentalist’s worst nightmare, what with jet fuel emissions, noise, traffic, acres of paved, impervious surfaces, and thousands of toilets that flush whether you want them to or not.

But where some people see problems, Erica Blyther (B.A. 1998) sees opportunities. The environmental science and policy major (and chemistry minor) has built a career addressing the environmental challenges at LAX, working on a vast portfolio of issues from green building and alternative energy use to environmentally preferred purchasing and water use, a critical topic in drought-prone southern California. She has also helped in the comeback of a small, endangered butterfly.

“Airports do have a lot of impacts,” Blyther says. “But a lot of sustainability can be driven by airports as well.”

Blyther is an Environmental Supervisor in the sustainability section of Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), which encompasses LAX and Van Nuys, a smaller regional airport. Her current focus is at LAX, which is planning a major overhaul in anticipation of hosting the Summer Olympics in 2028. The airport’s last major modernization was done to prepare for the 1984 Olympic Games, but the number of passengers has been on a steady rise, with recent years setting new records.

“More flights will take off in the future. That’s our nature,” says Blyther’s colleague Robert Freeman, an airport environmental manager. “Every additional aircraft emits. Every new passenger uses water.”

In the face of this inevitable growth, how do you green an airport?

Let’s start with transit, as Blyther did in our recent conversation. LAX is the busiest “origin and destination” airport in the United States, meaning that more passengers begin and/or end their flights there than anywhere else. Getting those passengers to and from the airport involves cars, buses, taxis—emissions and congestion. During peak periods, according to the airport’s sustainability website, 6,000 vehicles enter the airport in an hour. Space is needed for parking and rental car facilities.

Some buses serve LAX, including the affordable FlyAway bus service, but currently, access to LA’s Metro train service is awkward, requiring a shuttle from the nearest terminal, about two miles away. That is due to change with LAX’s Landside Access Modernization Program, a ground transportation update that will feature a relocated centralized car-rental facility, a Metro rail and bus station being built adjacent to the airport, and a people-mover train that will serve these two locations as well as all nine terminals.

On the working side of the airport, an alternative fuel policy is in place, and now 40 percent of the ground service equipment used at LAX is powered by electricity.

Blyther is also involved in the airport’s efforts to control energy and water usage. A recent Los Angeles city ordinance requires disclosure of energy and water use in all existing buildings, information that will be used to set benchmarks for future efficiency efforts.

The amount of water used at the airport is staggering; just think of the water used if each of the 80.9 million annual passengers flushed a toilet once. (Not to mention the number of extra flushes performed by the automatic toilets.) Add to that water used for landscaping and window washing, in food service, and in the airport’s cooling and heating system. According to Robert Freeman, this all adds up to 50 million gallons of water used annually in the nine LAX terminals.

Blyther, who is involved in gathering water- and energy-use information to fulfill the city’s mandate, says that the challenge is that many airport buildings are leased by contractors and tenants. “Some buildings have no meters and some have multiple meters.” Depending on the terms of the lease—and each of them is written differently—some tenants pay their own water and energy bills, and some do not. “We may not be entitled to the data, depending on the lease,” she says.

Freeman explains that greening an airport is different from greening a large corporate campus for this reason. LAWA is the host, and “the airlines bring in the planes and the companies that support them. We act as facilitators.”

That said, LAWA has taken steps to reduce water usage in its own operations, particularly in response to the mayor’s 2014 Emergency Drought Response directive. Turf has been removed and replaced with water-reducing landscaping or simply gravel. Reclaimed water is being used in irrigation, and a new advanced water treatment plant will add more reclaimed water to the system by 2020. During upcoming renovations and construction, ultra-low-flow toilets will be mandated, and those problematic auto-flushing toilets may be reconsidered.

On the energy front, Blyther says that her department has created a map showing where solar panels would work at the airport. “It’s complicated because of the light that reflects off of them.” The map shows where panels can be located without creating a problem for the pilots of incoming and outgoing flights.

But in the end, the decision to install solar has to come from the individual tenants—the airlines and concessionaires who operate at the airport. To some extent, the upcoming modernization effort may slow this effort down, because some buildings may be reconfigured. “For instance, the central terminal area will probably change a lot,” she says. The German airline Lufthansa is looking into a solar installation on one of its facilities that will be unchanged. Another possibility is putting solar panels on top of the people-mover train stations and on the large central rental car facility. But because concessionaires will operate these facilities, the decision is theirs and not LAWA’s. And it has to make business sense for them.

Blyther says that the leadership that is driving environmental efforts at the airport is coming from state and city leaders, not the federal government. The airport is a department of the city of Los Angeles, whose mayor, Eric Garcetti, has spearheaded a number of city initiatives and ordinances, including a green building standard that aims for new construction at city properties to achieve, at minimum, LEED Silver status.

The unique requirements of airport construction mean that LEED status can’t always be achieved there. For instance, says Blyther, the Federal Aviation Administration has strict requirements about the load-bearing capacity of runways, meaning that certain kinds of concrete and/or recycled asphalt can’t be used there. But environmentally friendlier mixes can be used on auxiliary surfaces like taxiways.

Blyther recently brought the LAWA Sustainable Design and Construction Policy incorporating LEED Silver to the Board of Airport Commissioners.

Blyther often reaches out to colleagues at other airports for information on what has worked elsewhere. Robert Freeman says that a collaborative spirit is one of her key skills: “The airport is just different from other places in so many ways. Erica has a handle on this. She finds out what works at other places to see if there is a solution for the airport.”

An upcoming project for Blyther will be working to adopt the City of Los Angeles’s environmentally preferred purchasing policy at LAWA.

Blyther grew up in L.A. in a family that valued education and science. “I was raised with Jacques Cousteau, and my Christmas presents were chemistry sets and microscopes,” she says. She went to Westchester High School, in the shadow of LAX. She chose Duke for her undergraduate degree after also considering environmental studies programs at UCLA and UC-Berkeley. Her father graduated from North Carolina Central University in Durham, and she had family in the area.

“The coursework at Duke was great and prepared me in core science and the ways that environmental policy is made.” She remembers in particular studying environmental policy with Marie Lynn Miranda and geology with Peter Malin, which helped in the HazMat phase of her career.

She returned to Los Angeles after graduating in 1998 and found work in the city’s Environmental Affairs Department, then started at LAWA in the Noise Management Bureau in 1999. Her early career at the airport focused primarily regulatory compliance, involving hazardous materials, waste, and stormwater management.

In 2005, she received an M.S. from California State University Northridge in Environmental and Occupational Health, studying for her degree while working fulltime.

A sojourn at the LA Department of Water and Power from 2007 to 2013 proved challenging and rewarding, both personally and professionally. She spent four sweltering summers and five freezing winters in the Owens Valley, 220 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The aqueduct that supplies half of LA’s water originates there. Blyther handled difficult assignments, many of them involving the air and water quality issues that resulted from the 1913 aqueduct and the subsequent drying out of Owens Lake. It is where she first became a supervisor and where she experienced a horrific car accident while driving to work. She broke bones in her neck and had to have a spinal fusion and a titanium plate installed.

Blyther has practiced the Afro-Brazilian martial art of Capoeira since 2003, and her doctors said that Capoeira made her neck strong and helped prevent a spinal cord injury.  “I’m truly blessed to retain an incredible range of motion and enjoy all my athletic activities,” she says.

She is now a Capoeira professor, and she and her school have performed at LAX terminals for the past three years as part of the LAX Holiday Entertainment Program to help alleviate the stress of holiday travel for passengers.

As her work has shifted from the regulatory and technical to the sustainability end of things, Blyther foresees endless opportunities for projects at the airport. “There are so many things to deal with and so many opportunities here,” she says.

One subject that interests her is the value of sustainability as a way of doing business. Leaders come and go who value or don’t value environmental issues, but, she says, we need a culture change in which sustainability is seen as an intrinsic value, a way of doing business that makes business sense.

“That’s a work in progress,” she says.

Lisa M. Dellwo is a freelance writer specializing in environment and nature, based in Down East Maine.