After many years of preparation, the Sustainable Airport Master Plan (SAMP) will finally swing into gear this summer.
For me, there is an eerie resemblance between today and the last expansion at Sea-Tac Airport–the Third Runway. As you know, the Port was granted permission to begin construction of the Third Runway in 1996 based on an FAA-mandated demand study begun in 1993.
As with the SAMP, the Third Runway planners had no idea that a national catastrophe (9/11) would occur after they had completed their work. They had no way of knowing that the actual demand for passenger travel would be so drastically altered. And yet, the Port did not re-evaluate its decision to build or even re-visit its demand analysis.
The thing people do not now recall is that the pre-9/11 number of daily operations at Sea-Tac was not surpassed until 2017. It was not until almost ten years after building the Third Runway and over twenty after the original study that Sea-Tac lived up to that unrevised demand analysis.
Also, remember that the original Third Runway demand analysis did not factor in either Delta or Alaska making Sea-Tac their respective hubs. But with all that, we now know that Sea-Tac Airport would have been able to continue function on two runways post-9/11–and would have continued to do so with the new technologies of computer-based aviation that came on-line about the time the Third Runway opened.
The Port has always claimed that it responds only to true market demand when it comes to passenger travel. For obvious reasons, this claim has always been met with skepticism by our communities. The only reason the Port was able to win both Alaska and Delta’s new business was because the Third Runway made it possible. The Port did not respond to existing demand–which was low even a decade after 9/11–it created the opportunity for the dramatic increase in daily operations.
With all it’s hardship and suffering, one small bright spot of COVID-19 has been that it provides the best empirical test imaginable of the basic premise upon which the SAMP is based: is there a real need to accommodate big increases in passenger travel?
And the answer is clear: Most of the world seems to get along just fine without the majority of commercial passenger travel. In fact, we have now learned conclusively that the majority of essential functions of business, education, research and even medicine can be done just as well, and in many cases better, without passenger air travel.
The airlines want you to fully implement the SAMP for the same reason that auto makers, to this day, still advocate for more lanes on highways–to sell more cars. Despite traffic planners screaming for years, “You cannot build your way out of traffic” and despite all the efforts by the EPA to educate the public with campaigns like “Is this trip really necessary?” we are still having a tough time changing such a deeply-ingrained mindset.
At the local level, the forces that will drive the SAMP are also deeply-ingrained, primarily one-time money and short-term employment. But those forces are not market-based. The building of things, whether they are needed or not, is always a short-term economic booster. But that is special interests talking, not market demand. All electeds know that one-time money is the crack cocaine of local government.
Every two weeks, you hear public comment from multiple persons who give very thoughtful arguments as to why the Port must address climate change in a truly substantial way. They all insist that you reduce the current number of operations of the airport–something you are not legally allowed to do.
But the decision to build; to expand or not, is the one decision that FAA law gives unambiguously to the airport operator. It is your decision.
And the single biggest positive impact that any of you could ever have for the environment around Sea-Tac Airport would be to respond only to the true, foreseeable demand for air travel in the post-COVID world.
In light of COVID-19 and it’s long-term impact on passenger air travel and given the now well-known benefits of reigning in unnecessary travel I urge you to immediately order a review of the Sustainable Airport Master Plan. I also ask you to contact the FAA and urge them to take that review into account in their upcoming environmental review.
The pandemic has made such a review necessary both economically and environmentally. For both the present and the future of Puget Sound: we should commit to building only what is truly needed.