A Letter To The Port Of Seattle Commissioners (Part II)

As I wrote in the first part of this letter, you got two doses of my fantastic eloquence at the last general meeting. I said there were two points I wanted to make to flesh out what I said and this is the second.

My first point concerned a less expensive and more efficient way of negotiating issues of noise and pollution without resorting to the adversarial approach.

This second point concerns a notion that I have almost never heard mentioned, though it is so basic to our relationship vis a vis issues of airport noise and pollution that I’m dumbfounded as to the reasons why. Namely: the Port Of Seattle is not a government. The Port does not represent people, rather it is a special purpose agency that looks so much like a government that everyone tends to forget this fact.

But if one examines FAA law, specifically areas involving noise and pollution, it turns out that it is up to the operator to petition the FAA and the Department Of Transportation for relief. When the various laws were written, the expectation was obviously that the operator of the airport would be a government which directly represented the people. So if the people were upset about, say night time flights or noise? The people could contact the operator of the airport (eg. their County Council) which could then petition the FAA for relief. Job done.

Now let’s look at Sea-Tac Airport. You (The Port Of Seattle) are the operator. We can’t go to you, the operator, for relief. You’re most definitely not our government. You don’t represent us. And various Port Commissioners have said so from the dais over the 21 years I’ve been going to Port Commission meetings.

According to your own bylaws your stated fiduciary responsibility is not to us residents. Your job is to create jobs and build the ‘Economic engine of Puget Sound!’ (Granted there is also mention made of each Commissioner’s obligation to be a ‘Steward Of The Environment’, but that obligation is personal; it is not part of the Port’s overall mission statement.)

In this way, the Port Of Seattle is unlike any other major airport operator in the United States. In the legal cases Steve Edmiston rattled off in his public comment, note that it was Cities and States that he mentioned. They are the operators of the airports. They represent the people who want relief.

Additionally, this is every airline’s dream arrangement. Since you do not represent us, you can never be expected to advocate for the interest of residents against any of your tenant’s interests (as a city or county owned airport might). Which means that your tenants have absolutely no incentives, either political or economic to change their behavior and treat us better.

Whereas (I think every letter to a government agency should have at least one ‘whereas’) my first letter was about saving us both some time and money, this is about basic morality. The Port Of Seattle has, by virtue of its unique hybrid status as a public utility/airport/seaport/land development conglomerate/taxing authority/medieval fiefdom, been able to bypass almost the entire system of controls that provide opportunities for relief for the airport communities around Sea-Tac Airport. And the beauty part? This construct allows the Port to do business with all the various noise abatement processes and systems of any other airport. It’s just that they don’t have to actually work. Well done to you.

What’s to be done about it? Two things, it seems to me.

First off, somebody needs to fix this in law. But that’s not your problem. It’s the second part where I need your help.

It would be a very good thing, and I’m being deadly serious here, if you would stop taking unfair advantage of your status as an operator who doesn’t have to answer to the residents of Des Moines, SeaTac, Federal Way, etc. In practical terms, that means, recognizing that the Port Of Seattle really does have the airport communities over a barrel. I mean by an order of magnitude greater than any other relationship between unhappy villagers and airport operators in the United States.

As childish as the above sounds, it really is about as simple as that. I wasn’t kidding about ‘medieval fiefdom’. As a Port Commissioner, surely you’ve figured out that you’re the closest thing to rule by fiat in the entire region. The five of you decide on something and often, et voila, it happens. I’m sure that’s a large part of the attraction of the gig. You can make a huge difference for the local communities–much larger than can be made by throwing up a few more Hardyboard structures downtown. And the first step is just to recognize that the legal system is weighted in your favor. I mean a lot more than you have been told. Lucky you.



“Jeeez, dudeski, what the hell is wrong with you? Yer fraternizin’ with the enemy!”

It’s important that we recognize how different Sea-Tac Airport is structured as a legal entity from other airports around the country. This really matters as we contemplate any legal action.

We talk about this over and over and the conclusion we always come back to is that it is a lack of transparency all around that is the root of all evil. At some point, if we are going to get past all this mess we are going to have to be able to speak plainly. We can’t be all cloak and dagger and then one day, when the clouds lift and the sun comes out, all of a sudden learn how to talk.

To a certain extent, we (the airport communities) have failed to tell our story to the rest of the region. If our area had promoted our message properly over the years we might not be quite so deep in the hole.

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