Expansion projects aim to keep Sea-Tac Airport from being a ‘bottleneck’ to region’s growth

Discussion:

Lance Lyttle’s office offers a view across most of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He’s the managing director for the aviation division for the Port of Seattle. In short, he manages the airport. And from his corner windows you can see planes taking off and landing, and taxiing around the airfield.

But these jets are tiny in comparison to a new bridge that connects the airport’s South Satellite to a new International Arrivals Facility, where passengers will retrieve luggage and go through customs.

The bridge sits 85 feet in the air, crossing a taxi-way as planes roll into their gates underneath. It looks like something NASA might have designed. And it’s a symbol of the growth Lyttle has presided over since coming to Sea-Tac at the beginning of 2016.

He talked about that, and other topics, in a wide-ranging interview with KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco.

ON EXPANSION PLANS

The new International Arrivals Facility comes as the airport also renovates its North Satellite terminal, and makes adjustments in its main terminal.

Sea-Tac can’t grow like other airports, because it sits on a plateau.

“Here we’re on 2,600 acres. IAH (Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport) is 10,000 acres. We have far more traffic here at this airport,” Lyttle said. “So we have to be extremely efficient. We have to plan and design our facilities to almost precision, because we just can’t afford to make a mistake here.”

And with some 51.8 million passengers a year, Sea-Tac Airport will “max out” at some point, he says. There are efforts underway to find a site for an additional commercial airport to serve Seattle. And Paine Field in Everett added commercial flights about a year ago.

Lyttle says Paine Field has offered a little relief from all the growth – especially for travelers north of Seattle.

… BUT COULD IT SHRINK?

Lyttle said it’s important that Sea-Tac Airport keep up with the regional growth, and not be a bottleneck to progress here in the Pacific Northwest.

But what if our boom slows, or worse?

“If you look at airport growth, and for example (gross domestic product), it goes through these cycles. There are peaks and valleys. We’re going through a peak right now and there’s going to be a valley somewhere,” he said.

Lyttle said we don’t know when – or why – an economic downturn might happen, but it will. And he says one mistake airports make is to stop building when the economy turns sour.

“When you stop, the growth starts again, and you’re two, three, four years behind the curve,” he said. “One of the cool things about building during a recession is you can get good prices, and you’re creating jobs. It also allows you to catch up, because the growth slows a little bit.”

ON COMMUNITY IMPACTS

Your interactions with the airport can depend on where you live. If you’re far away, it’s a place where you go to catch a flight or pick up passengers. But if you’re in the cities of SeaTac or Burien, to name a few, the airport is a factor in everyday life.

“The communities that are closest to the airport are the ones that are disproportionately impacted by noise, by pollution,” Lyttle said. “We’re trying to reduce the impact of late-night noise. We can’t mandate it, but we’ve asked the FAA to look at the number of flights coming in on our third runway between [midnight] and 5 o’clock in the morning. Since we’ve done that, we’ve seen a major reduction.”

They’re also asking airlines to limit flights in those hours, and exploring cleaner aviation fuels.

ON SECURITY CHANGES

Airlines are increasingly interested in deploying facial recognition technology to help with security. But at Sea-Tac Airport, those plans are on hold.

Lyttle disputes the characterization that the airport is “resisting” facial recognition technology. But he says it will have to comply with regulations under consideration by the Port of Seattle Commission. Until then, airlines are holding off at Sea-Tac.

“There’s privacy issues,” he said. “There are issues associated with race, with gender, and we want to ensure that the technology that’s being used is used equitably for everybody that’s coming through the airport.”

The federal government, on the other hand, is not bound by the airport’s hold on biometric technology in the parts of Sea-Tac it controls. That includes Customs areas at the new International Arrivals Facility.