A speech to the Des Moines/Normandy Park Rotary Club
December 9, 2020
By JC Harris
You know that old aphorism “Fish don’t know they’re wet.”? That’s kinda how it goes for airport communities. And especially Sea-Tac Airport.
Before I moved here in ’94, I worked as a consulting engineer in Detroit for many years. My firm helped lots of companies improve their processes, so if you were really old I would’ve been known as an ‘efficiency expert’. I worked a lot on environmental compliance with power companies.
Like many of you I lived here happily for a long time, but started getting annoyed after the airport started growing so rapidly in 2012. That growth was kickstarted by a triple-whammy. Both Alaska Air and Delta decided to make Sea-Tac their main hub and the FAA started rolling out this thing called NextGen and Greener Skies. The net effect was more flights, concentrated in tighter flight paths over my neighborhood.
I did a bit of research on ways we might push back. And I was puzzled at how few little voice our airport communities have. Because, and this is the important point I want to make: if this were any other area where you have a large polluter, there are many, many laws and opportunities for the locals to obtain various forms of relief. Airports are unique in this way.
So… being an engineer/data scientist kinda guy, I got a couple of friends I knew from the aviation industry and a lawyer to help me start SeatacNoise.Info. SeatacNoise.Info is basically a an on-line museum. It consists of every single bit of information we can find relevant to the airport going back to about 1959-ish. We interview everyone we can find who can help us understand the various expansions.
The over-arching idea is to provide an objective look at how Sea-Tac Airport affects the surrounding communities so that decision makers can understand their opportunities and make choices going forward that best protect their communities.
What I know, from working with the auto companies and utilities is that the big problem in protecting community interest is the same one with all negotiations: the volume and information differentials. At bottom, a big entity like a car company, or the Port Of Seattle, knows more about almost everything than a tiny City. It makes better decisions not because it’s ‘bigger’ per se but partly because they have more time and energy to strategise and to tell their story.
Airports Are Unique
Getting back to my original question about why our airport communities seem to have such a small voice in the effects of the airport, the thing to understand is that, unlike almost all other industries, environment rules around airports are made by the FAA and not the EPA. This is something that the Airline Industry lobbied for heavily in the 80’s and it worked.
But Sea-Tac Airport is especially special because it is owned by the Port Of Seattle and not a City or County. FAA law, where it pertains to protecting the community, was designed for City or County ownership. The idea was that, if your community was upset about the noise or pollution or socio-economic impacts, you could just go to your Council and, since they own the airport, get them to do what they could to dial it back. Since the Port is not directly accountable to the voters who live near Sea-Tac, there is no direct accountability.
The Greater Good
Technically, the Port Commissioners are elected to represent all of King County. OK, the vast majority of King County absolutely loves the airport. So the Port consistently votes to expand it whenever possible. It’s only us 150,000 or so who are unhappy. Since over 2,200,000 people live in King County, we can never win any argument over “what is best for King County”. Our voice is literally never heard in planning decisions because it is for ‘the greater good’ that Sea-Tac Airport should provide as much service as possible.
There is also this: The Port has at least one grant program in literally every County in the State of Washington. They provide notable benefits throughout Washington that have nothing to do with planes and boats. This is an extremely deft political strategy because any State Legislator thinks twice about voting against the Port’s interest for fear of losing programs they all appreciate.
Apart from getting paid by the airlines and revenues from stuff like parking and concessions, the airport gets –most- of its revenue from the Federal government in two basic ways.
Passenger Facility Charges (that $4 tax that’s on every leg of every ticket.)
Airport Improvement Program grants (FAA money to maintain the airport)
The Port has received over $2.5B from each of those sources since the 90’s
Now Federal law says that the Port can use a portion of those monies for various mitigation strategies any time it likes. But to date, the Port has literally (and ya know how people misuse the word literally?) The Port has never spent a dime of this money on community mitigation voluntarily.
The Big Green Deflection
The Port aims to be the greenest airport in America. And they are. However, their efforts cover basically every aspect of operations except the flights… which are of course, over 95% of their emissions. So, taken as a whole, the net effect of all their efforts actually benefits other areas (eg. the Duwamish) far more than the Sea-Tac area.
Sea-Tac Airport is the biggest individual source of pollution in King County and the second in the State Of Washington. And unlike cars and trucks, there are no mandated environmental controls on aircraft operations. (FAA vs. EPA).
Aircraft makers like Boeing like to tout how much quieter and more fuel-efficient and less polluting their new planes are. There are two problems with that claim. First, anyone here who has a personal plane knows that a plane is not a car. It is routine for all types of aircraft to have a lifespan of 40 or more years. In fact, some of the noisiest night cargo flights are ancient 747s. The Port has the power to lean on those tenants to replace them but chooses not to. The other problem with this claim is that although there have been big improvements in fuel-efficiency and noise, that’s relative. Think of a ten year old computer, or even a five year old phone. All tech is improving at a huge rate. When you compare the improvements in pollution, noise and fuel efficiency of automobiles vs. commercial aircraft over the past forty years, it’s no contest.
The Port has been among the most progressive in America in terms of some community actions. For example, we have one of the ‘best’ noise monitoring systems of any American airport. Unfortunately, despite millions of dollars and three different systems in fifteen years, their noise monitoring system has never worked properly. Eg. The closest monitor: 12th Ave and 236th misses at least 100 flights per day.
The Port likes to tout that it is the Economic Engine of King County. And it is. And they have gone so far as to publish extremely nice brochures as to how much they benefit each of the surrounding airport communities. Unfortunately, these brochures, which all electeds, business people, etc. receive, are highly inflated. Except for the City Of SeaTac, the airport provides less than five percent of employment and GDP for any of the airport communities For example, in 2018 only 61 people living in Des Moines were employed by the Port Of Seattle.
Airports Are Factories
From a community point of view, a commercial airport behaves like any factory. The vast majority of negative impacts stay at the source and the vast majority of economic benefits are sent away from the source ( Seattle and the East Side.) Very little of the benefits actually accrue to communities under the flight paths. The negative impacts stay and the money goes away.
SeaTac is the notable exception. They have an agreement with the Port Of Seattle which pays them north of $3M per year. And that has made them, financially, the most successful City in the area. By far.
As with any factory town, there is a lot of loyalty and that makes what I’m saying seriously annoying for many of you. I get it. Exactly the same in Detroit. You have generations of people who worked for Boeing or an Airline and it put their kids through college and they don’t wanna hear any crap about how ‘the airport is bad for communities.’ As with any factory town, there is a strong desire to continue to support the aviation industry writ large even when it is decades past the point of being able to give back to communities.
Something to keep in mind
Despite the airlines industry problems, Sea-Tac Airport is, financially, doing surprisingly well. The actual results for aviation revenue will probably be 90% of pre-COVID-19 Budget. Why? Remember we talked about all the Federal aid commercial airports receive? That’s the answer. Airlines and employees may struggle, but airports are extremely resilient since they are considered so essential by the Federal government.
Now to the politics.
Basically every leader representing a factory town will create the impression that they are supportive of TOUGH FEDERAL LEGISLATION to support the community, reduce pollution, yadadadadada. In fact, the Port Of Seattle leads the way on this. If you look at the Port’s legislative agenda it just screams, ‘reform the FAA!’ And in fact, most local activists buy into this, writing hundreds of letters to Adam Smith and others to support Federal reform.
Adam Smith and the Quiet Skies Caucus, God Bless, have proposed very good legislation to start reforming the FAA. It has five major points.
Here’s the reality: Almost no Federal legislation actually goes anywhere anymore, right? It is extremely unlikely that there will be a top down reform of the FAA in the next decade. In private, every legislator agrees. Even Governor Jay Inslee (the environmental candidate) is quite blunt: He’s waiting for electric planes, because anything that might ‘harm’ the airline industry would be bad for the State Of Washington.
So…. When your City or County Councilmember or State Rep talks about how much they want change, it’s kind of a shiny penny trick. It’s a convenient way to say, “Gee I’d love to help, but it’s those darn jerks at the FAA!” Part of that is task avoidance. But part of it is a lack of information as to what is really possible at the local level. Hence SeatacNoise.Info.
All Politics Is Local
The truth is that all legislation now is incubated at the City and State level. Small governments try ideas and then if they work, Congress then turns it into a Federal deal. It’s been that way for over 20 years now and that trend will only accelerate as gridlock continues. The ONLY ideas that will get traction are ideas that started at the local level.
OK the Good News
Two years ago, I approached your Representative Tina Orwall and Senator Karen Keiser with an idea to change State law regarding Port Packages… the sound insulation systems about 9,600 homes now have. And miracle of miracles? They went for it! And a year later, HB2315 was passed.
Now… were it not for COVID there was a very real chance that Adam Smith could’ve snuck that exact language into a rule change for the FAA. In effect taking it national!
Guess what. That is one of the five points on Adam’s national legislation. We just took it a la carte.
In 2020, Tina Orwall has been working hard with the University of Washington to get HEPA filters installed at several area schools. Here’s the thing: It’s been known for about 10 years now that kids in highly polluted areas who get better air can score as much as a full grade on standardized tests. And those improvements persist! Another form of the ‘all or nothing’ thinking I’ve been talking about has been the argument that, “Who gives a crap about indoor air filters or noise filters when you still can’t go out on yer deck?” But that’s the wrong approach. When you improve the air for a nine year old kid, even for seven hours a day, you’re permanently improving their lives! That’s a local program. And when it succeeds (it’s already been done two other communities), Congress will look at that success and provide money for all schools near airports everywhere.
See how this little game works?
Air Quality Monitors
What is SeatacNoise.Info doing for 2021? Glad you asked.
Sen. Karen Keiser and Rep. Johnson have agreed to help get a State Budget Proviso passed this year to provide comprehensive, annual air quality monitoring around Sea-Tac Airport.
This is about as sexy as a flannel night gown. But it’s probably the most important local legislation we could ever obtain. Since 1971 there have roughly thirteen air quality studies around Sea-Tac Airport. Almost all of them have been limited either to a single toxin or to a particular geographic area. And many of them have been ‘modeled’–not based on real measurements. Other than the 1996 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prior to the Third Runway, there has been no comprehensive measurements of all aviation-related toxins and green house gases. Now contrast that with the water you drink. Your State Water District measures 307 toxins, four times a year. Imagine if your water district worked like the airport?
The Second Derivative
In addition to not understanding the current socio-economic and environmental impacts of Sea-Tac Airport, we have very little understanding of the historic numbers. Which mean that we have no way to track the change in these readings as the airport has grown and, worst of all, we have no way to accurately model how future growth will impact our communities. The sooner we start measuring, the sooner we will be able to accurately predict and manage the future.
No data? No problem!
There is an aphorism in environmental law, “No data, no problem.” This means that if you don’t have good scientific data, regulators and legislators literally cannot help you. The Catch-22 of providing better mitigations for airport communities has been that lack of good data because there are no current Federal mandates to provide it and, as we’ve learned, little chance of getting it any time soon. But with the help of State leaders like Senator Keiser and Representative Johnson we can do it ourselves and break this cycle.
We’re fish that don’t know that we’re wet. We don’t know the impacts of the airport. We are very misinformed as to the benefits the airport provides right here. And we’ve developed a sort of ‘that’s the way it is’ vibe. We have a lot of decision makers who use the FAA and the Fed to deflect attention from local action.
But change is possible at the local level… and in fact that is the only path towards the Fed legislation we all want.
There are a few local electeds, like Tina and Karen and Jesse who have been willing to take steps. But we could do a lot more… without harming the Port or airlines by even one penny.
If you want to know more, please contact https://seatacnoise.info and subscribe to our mailing list.