It’s A Disaster

With the emergence of Coronavirus, we’ve noticed a great deal of Schadenfreude among airport activists across the world. Comments such as “It’s so quiet now. We should have an outbreak like this all the time!” The thing most residents forget is that we actually did twenty years ago. It was called ‘9/11’.

If you look at annual operations at Sea-Tac Airport through the late ’90’s you might be surprised to note how many operations there were; almost as many in the year 2000 as there were in 2017. And remember, this was on two, not three, runways. How is this even possible, dude?

It sure is quiet

When many residents scream about “all the noise”, it often means that they moved to the area in this unique time after 2001 and before the triple-whammy of 2012. Or, they never had the joy of living near the runways so they felt like it was those people’s problems. The number of operations dropped almost in half in 2002. So when we all talk about the ‘explosive growth of Sea-Tac’, what we’re really talking about is the airline industry’s recovery from 9/11. And it took almost a decade for the airport to return to ‘pre-attack’ levels. But for 9/11, we would’ve blown past current levels years ago. Just between us girls, when most people complain about the situation now, what they’re really saying is, “the planes are flying over me now!”


It was the 9/11 crisis that gave so many new residents a false idea of the area–at least for a few years. And Coronavirus will also likely give us a bit of a respite for a while. But regardless, the airport was always crazy unpleasant for those who lived nearby. It’s just that now that it’s affecting you it’s a broader social crisis, right? And this is important: this change in attitude genuinely puzzles management at Sea-Tac Airport.

Remember, the environmental team at Sea-Tac have literally been in place since the Third Runway. They’re kinda like men of a certain age now living through #METOO. It seems to them that suddenly ‘the rules all got changed.’ They literally have not internalized why people are now reacting so differently.

Port Of Seattle has been following the same playbook that your local leaders were perfectly willing to tolerate for over a decade. And now all of a sudden it’s not OK to be noisy? We have to care about noise and pollution? Economic growth isn’t enough for you? Well that’s just not fair! 😀 And frankly, we kinda see their point.

The lack of City, County and State pressure since 2004 gave the Port Of Seattle definite signals that it was OK to behave indifferently. And activists simply refuse to acknowledge this and hold local electeds to account for their inaction. We tend to put all the blame on the Port and the FAA, when they have been, to a certain degree, simply responding to your City, County and State electeds lack of concern. If your electeds had been taking care of business all those years after the Third Runway Lawsuit, we would not be in the dire straits we are today.

At Capacity?

We also tend to to forget that Sea-Tac almost never runs all three runways simultaneously. In fact, one reason for building the Third Runway was because the second runway was built too near the east runway for safe simultaneous operation. The short length of the Third Runway makes it far less attractive for take-offs than landings. (One can occasionally still hear older aviation experts quip, “We paid a billion dollars for that?”) All cattiness aside, the Third Runway did not add ‘fifty percent more capacity’, but it did add capacity.  So when people (wrongly) think that the airfield is now ‘at capacity’, they’re not remembering how much traffic the tower was able to process ‘on two rails’. And they’re also not understanding how many times over the past seventy years the Port has cried “at capacity” only to find a solution and just keep right on growing.

Life Finds A Way

Remember the movie Jurassic Park and that scientist guy ‘Malcolm’?

Sea-Tac Airport is a lot like how he described ‘life’. It  always finds a way. Even when we think it’s impossible for the airport to expand, it will keep expanding. It finds a way. It has done since the first major expansion in 1961. Because the incentives are simply too great.

It wasn’t the Third Runway or Delta Airlines or the rise of Amazon or even NextGen that got us to where we are today. It’s been an attitude that we all have had, activists just as much as the pro-growth people (as well as our electeds) about our relationship with Sea-Tac Airport. What Malcolm is trying to tell those hapless resort guests is that the system is the problem. Even if you win any given battle, eventually Sea-Tac will find a way to keep growing.

When we at SeatacNoise.Info say stuff like this, activists typically think we’re throwing in the towel and joining The Dark Side Of The Force. Quite the contrary. We’re just tired of fighting the wrong battles.

What activists and decision-makers need to realize is that we will need ongoing management to deal with Sea-Tac Airport. Something we have never had. For decades, the vast majority of us thought ‘growth is good’–even the residents near the airfield who were getting constantly blasted. We were all taught how great aviation is for our area! Almost no elected at the City, County or State level did anything after the 2004 except cheer on the Port Of Seattle. Most still provide only lip service.

We all started going wrong with Sea-Tac Airport sixty years ago when the local communities were unable to come up with a unified response to and obtain  a proper balance of control from the Port Of Seattle. Since then, we have fought one very poor skirmish after another and always on the losing side–because we haven’t been able to work together.

The Solution

The way forward, which we’ve been saying now for over three years, is simple: elect people who know and care. Stop worrying about individual events or policies like the SAMP or even NextGen and start changing the politics.

The reason we have lost every major battle with the Port Of Seattle over the past sixty years (and will continue to lose, by the way) is because we keep thinking that we can win in spite of uninformed, indifferent and blatantly two-faced  local electeds. That is impossible. Or maybe we think we can somehow educate or harangue the current crop of electeds to ‘do the right thing’. Having seen behind the current, we know now that this is also impossible.

The only solution is to elect people who make the airport their primary consideration.

CBT For Activists

The problem is that doing things the way we’ve been doing things is almost irresistible. It’s like dieting or drug addiction. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and it’s interesting because the notion is to literally re-wire the brain towards healthier thought patterns. The theory is that deeply entrenched problems such as addiction or insomnia occur because the brain has become wired to react in ways that feel good but are ultimately unhealthy. That seems to me to be not just a metaphor, but a literal diagnosis for most airport activists we know. It’s so compelling to respond to The SAMP! or NextGen! or a noise complaint app or some public comment deal. It feels like yer ‘doing something’. It creates a micro-endorphin rush that activists need to avoid succumbing to hopelessness. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong approach to fixing anything.

The correct approach is slow, boring, methodical, frustrating and has no endorphin rush. And it’s simply this: replace your electeds with people who place your health at the top of their list of priorities. Be willing to locate candidates who go to the mat on reducing noise and pollution; even if you have to hold your nose on every other issue. And above all: stop voting for your friends hoping to ‘enlighten’ them. All the evidence we have gathered from (literally) around the United States shows that this is a terrible (but almost irresistible) idea. Candidates who come into a race without an established knowledge and commitment to a single issue like airports almost always fail to perform well on that issue. This has been the case in virtually every issue from guns to gays to… you name it. The idea that you can take ambitious candidates who are not already on-board and somehow ‘mentor and influence’ them productively is beyond arrogance.  (You wouldn’t hire someone for any serious j-o-b without significant subject matter expertise, right? How long has it taken you to develop your level of knowledge and commitment?)

We recognize that this can be an extremely unsatisfying strategy. We get it. Unfortunately, it’s the only solution that is actually a solution. There are no shortcuts to finding candidates that have the passion and know the material.

So while yer all washing yer hands twenty times a day, use the temporary respite from the noise and pollution to do a re-think on your entire approach to activism. Stop worrying about one day, one month or even one year. Start creating the politics that lead to a permanent solution.

Sea-Tac Airport will bounce back from this blip. And without a change in politics the SAMP will not be the last expansion.

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