Sea-Tac neighbors feel duped over 3rd-runway noise

Article Summary:

While Port of Seattle officials said the region needed a $1 billion third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to reduce flight delays during bad weather, planes are landing on the new runway all day, every day regardless of weather. Burien residents say the constant noise is intolerable.

The Port of Seattle said Sea-Tac needed a $1 billion runway to reduce delays during poor weather. But planes have been landing there whether it’s cloudy or clear since it opened Nov. 20.

Air-traffic controllers say they were trained to land the majority of planes at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on the new runway. Neighbors immediately complained about planes flying overhead all day, every day.

“It feels like we’re in a war zone,” said Miriam Bearse, who lives north of the third runway in Burien. “It feels like bombers going overhead every five minutes at low altitude.”

Port spokesman Perry Cooper said in September about the new runway: “It’s not designed for consistent landings,” and “It’s designed for landings in low visibility.”

But Cooper said this week that while preventing delays in poor weather was the “primary” reason for the new runway, the airport always intended to use it at high-traffic times. “It is going to be used 365 days a year,” he said. “It’s going to be used during peak periods during good weather days.”

Bob Sheckler, chair of the Airport Communities Coalition and mayor of Des Moines, said, “This is contrary to everything that they’ve told us in the past. It was very simple: that it would only be used in times of inclement weather.”

The coalition spent years suing the Port to halt runway construction because of environmental concerns.

The local air-traffic-controllers union said the Federal Aviation Administration initially trained the controllers to land as many flights as they needed to on the new runway.

“We were under the understanding that when the arrival demands came up, we could run as many as we wanted to the new runway,” said Don Bagley, local union president for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “And basically we started operating that way and [the Port] said, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that.’ “

“It’s all political,” he said. “… It’s because when they publicized it, it was to be a reliever runway, not a primary runway.”

Since the runway opened, it has handled 41 percent of arriving flights, according to Stan Shepherd, manager of the airport’s noise programs. In earlier studies, the Port assumed the runway would handle 27.7 percent of arrivals in 2010.

“Right now, it’s a little bit high but we are seeing some training issues with [air-traffic] controllers, and some weather-associated issues,” Shepherd said. He said the Port is working with the FAA to get the number of landings down. “Over a yearly basis we expect those numbers to go down, but we’re only in the first few weeks.”

Between April and September, the Port will shift even more traffic to the third runway while the port rebuilds the eastern runway.

Cooper said that during clear-weather days the airport is using the third runway during high-traffic periods: 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.; 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

On Monday, from 2:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m., four planes were seen flying over Bearse’s neighborhood to land on the third runway. During the same period, three planes landed to the east on the airport’s older runway.

Bagley said it would be safer, and more efficient, to have most planes land on the new runway and route departures to the easternmost runway. Now, most planes take off from the center runway and land on the outer runways. Under that traffic pattern, planes have to taxi across more runways, he said, which raises the risk of having two airplanes on the same runway at the same time.

Bearse said it’s not fair that she has to live under the constant air traffic when a half-mile to the east under the landing path for the older runway, houses have been razed and replaced with a public park. She bought a house with her partner on 12th Avenue South right before the runway opened.

Elda Mageo, who lives across the street from Bearse, said the noise has increased a lot since the runway opened. “We’re screaming at each other” to be heard inside the house, she said.

Her fiance, William Fifita, said it’s difficult to get to sleep at 9 p.m. so he can wake up for his job at 3 a.m.

Another neighbor, Vanessa Guiberson, said her baby used to sleep through the night but now wakes up every half-hour.

Shepherd said he was not surprised residents have been upset about noise since the runway opened. Last weekend, he said, his office received 20 complaints.

“We’re definitely going to have some new flight patterns with new noise,” Shepherd said.

Based on a 2002 noise study, the Port received funds from the FAA to mitigate the noise impact. The Port purchased 50 homes directly north of the airport and relocated the residents. The Port also paid for more insulation, such as new windows and baffling for chimneys, in 9,400 homes, including 87 homes in Bearse’s neighborhood.

The Port plans to start another noise study next year that will include noise monitoring and public input. The results may lead to more funding from the FAA for noise mitigation.

Bearse has been measuring the sound level outside with noise meters as planes go by, and says readings have been as high as 89 decibels, the equivalent of a motorcycle’s sound.

Shepherd said that level was typical for an approaching aircraft, and funding for noise mitigation such as insulation would depend on noise levels averaged out over a year.

“I want to tear my hair out,” Bearse said. “It’s awful.”

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or