Over the past four years SeatacNoise.Info has done two fairly in-depth analyses. First, concerning the relation between Sea-Tac Airport and the surrounding communities going back to 1959 (before the building of what is now the ‘first runway’), and second looking at the current state of community relations at the top 20 U.S. airports (by average daily operations.)
We’ve come to a basic conclusion: despite any economic benefits to the broader region, the populations directly adjacent to the airport and/or underneath the flight paths are actually harmed more than helped by airport operations. And therefore one needs to view the airport as something like a chronic condition–something that needs ongoing management.
The political problem
Unfortunately community concerns–and again this nationwide–are generally only addressed in an acute fashion. We react to a specific event–such as when there is an expansion or dramatic change in flight paths. The rest of the time, even leaders in directly adjacent neighborhoods tend to not spend much time on ‘airport issues’.
It is more useful to consider a community near an airport as being like a City sited near a large river. There is a seaport, which provides goods and services, but there is also a recognition that, on a regular basis, the waters will rise and nearby homes and businesses will be negatively impacted in dramatic ways.
So a City with a seaport maintains an ongoing department to monitor and manage the negative impacts of the river. And a big part of that process involves ongoing partnerships with governments higher up the chain for prevention, remediation and mitigation. That is exactly how airports should be managed by their communities.
There are many ways that this management model can be expressed in practical terms. But the first step is to recognize that this is a fundamental change in thinking: from reactive to proactive. From band-aid treatments to ongoing management.
Two practical demands
To demonstrate this approach in a practical fashion, we have two simple demands:
- Constant and thorough monitoring. It is surprising to us that almost no airports provide ongoing and accurate monitoring of either noise or pollution. Can anyone imagine any other type of large factory that does not track its emissions? And yet, that is exactly the state of affairs around airports. Psychologically, we do not view them like factories–even though that is what they are in terms of their negative impacts. Studies tend to only be done very infrequently and are almost always for only one or two toxins–never comprehensive. Every airport needs annual monitoring of all the major known pollutants that are linked to aviation operations.
- Royalties. Every developer knows that when they build or expand operations in a town that they will be expected to pay a variety of fees and taxes both in exchange for the use of the City’s space and resources, but also to mitigate the negative impacts that all development brings. And to avoid constant fights over every project, those taxes and fees are codified into law in the form of REETs or In Lieu funds. They are normative. And yet, airlines and airports pay no similar fees to communities for monitoring or mitigation. In fact, at airports like Sea-Tac, the operator actually taxes the communities in order to finance further development! We must make it normative that airlines and operators will pay a small fee in order to maintain the quality of life for the communities they impact. The obvious targets are Passenger Facility Charges and Airport Improvement Grants. If even a penny were set aside from every one of those dollars, communities would have the tools they need for mitigation and monitoring. One penny.
Activists will immediate respond with comments like, “Yes, but what about the flight paths! That’s what I care about!” We understand. But another thing we’ve learned in our studies is that change in environmental law is a process. Unfortunately, you can’t jump to step ten and skip over steps one through nine. And that is another attitude adjustment we must make. There are few ‘slam dunks’ in environmental law and the tools we tend to use (provided by the FAA) do not work.
But one thing that is always necessary in environmental law: data. You cannot make change without hard data. Across America, airport operators, the FAA and the airlines have pushed hard to avoid regular monitoring. And why shouldn’t they? Having clear answers to questions of pollution and epidemiology do them no favours.
Another thing that is absolutely necessary to effect positive change is money. At almost every airport, communities have either avoided standing up for their rights or mounted less than effective efforts simply for a lack of resources.
Finally, it should be noted that neither of these demands are in any way painful for the airlines industry. They don’t affect a single operation and a 1% tax can hardly be considered onerous by any reasonable business. And above all, we should be reasonable given the clear message that Congress has given the nation as to the intrinsic importance of commercial aviation.
In short, we must focus on long term management: a plan that views airports as a chronic condition that must be managed in an ongoing and strategic fashion. It requires help from our legislators at the Federal level to give us the tools we need to succeed. It also requires community leaders to be willing to think about these problems in a new way–and develop a system that persists–like any other ongoing municipal service.