When I first spoke publicly on the problems of Sea-Tac Airport four years ago, I was not coy. I said, “Roll it back.” And by that I meant, reducing the number of daily operations back to 2012 levels. I was told that only an act of God could make such a thing possible.
Who knew, right? 😀
Of course, I’m not making light of the hardships we are all facing. But as the saying goes, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Despite the many terrible costs of Coronavirus, it has offered unique opportunities for positive change that should not be ignored. The much clearer and quieter world we now enjoy is what should become our permanent norm. COVID-19 offers a one-time chance to reset our relationship with and expectations of Sea-Tac Airport.
The endless cycle
The lock down has made two things apparent:
- A lot of air travel is not necessary. We have now learned that we have all the tech in place right now to permanently reduce the number of operations to a level that surrounding communities *can live with.
- Revenues from the airport are something that King County has become addicted to. It is that money, not an actual need for air travel that fuels the endless appetite for growth.
These factors have created an array of perverse incentives that lead to the cycle of endless growth. Perhaps the most worrisome of these is this: the Port Of Seattle has become a quasi-fourth branch of government outside of the traditional City/County/State triad. The Port provides not only jobs, but all manner of public programs which other governments should provide for but do not. And that in turn creates further pressure on the Port to provide even more of those services and pushes them ever further away from their essential mission: being a Port–a public utility to simply move people and cargo with safety and efficiency.
In short, Sea-Tac kept growing not so much because of true ‘demand’, but because if it were to cut back, even a little, restaurant workers suffer, environmental cleanup programs suffer, construction jobs stop. Those are all worthy endeavors, but have nothing to do with how many flights we really need to move cargo and passengers with no other good options.
The role of cities
This system prevents small cities like Des Moines from ever obtaining anything approaching fair treatment. A town of 32,000 will never be able to outvote the majority 2.2 million King County residents who love the economic benefits and are frankly unwilling to pay for the externalities (read: harms) inflicted on the minority. This is a terrible case of majoritarian corruption.
Even worse, your local governments have been just as complicit as any other stakeholders. Airport communities have tried to have it both ways. We have engaged in magical thinking that we can occasionally object to the noise and pollution, while continuing to accept the Port’s pro-growth mission (not to mention the grants) as part of some ‘greater good’. And we’ve done this despite clear evidence that the growth of Sea-Tac Airport has not been a net economic plus for airport communities. The harms to health, environment, property values, business climate completely swamp any pluses, but leaders ignore these harms as abstractions.
Perhaps our worst failing is that we thought that this endless cycle was inevitable. We never seriously fought back because we thought the problem was simply too big. But COVID-19 has opened a door we did not think could even exist.
A new direction
Barring another emergency, this door will never again open. So our primary goal now should be to advocate for a permanently smaller Sea-Tac Airport. The way forward is for Des Moines (and the other airport communities) to decide once and for all that their stated policy is to do whatever they can to permanently cap daily operations from Sea-Tac Airport.
I am asking you and residents of all other airport communities to write your City Council (email@example.com) and make the following request:
Please make it the official legislative goal of the City Of Des Moines to work at every level of government towards permanently limiting the number of daily operations at Sea-Tac Airport to 900.
Are you nuts?
Of course many will tell you that such request is ‘fantastic’… as in ‘a total fantasy, pal!’ Yes, before COVID-19 it would have been. But the entire American Airline economy has just seen a tectonic shift, maybe greater than the one after 9/11. It will take them years to recover. So all stakeholders (airlines, the Port Of Seattle and yes even King County) must learn to adapt and survive. In fact, they are already doing this work and they will succeed because the airline industry is indispensable to our nation. We don’t have to do anything except to take advantage of their current position to pressure them into making this ‘temporary’ configuration a the permanent state of affairs†.
In short, while the airline industry re-tools, the entire region has a unique opportunity for a ‘do-over’ to dramatically improve our quality of local life if we have the courage to act.
Of course, there will be many of you who will be skeptical because I (and franky no one) is offering a step by step ‘cookbook’ for accomplishing this goal. I always find this attitude puzzling because if you think about it no successful activism ever starts out with such a ‘recipe’. It begins with a goal and then proceeds to build support. ‡Once you get leaders committed to accomplishing the goal, the means always makes itself known. The toughest part is actually getting that commitment.
The other thing we can never address
At some point soon, we will have to dial back the number of flights if we are ever going to properly address climate change. Unfortunately no one, even our Governor (the most environmentally concerned candidate for President) has been willing to tackle the aviation industry. COVID-19 is giving us the opportunity to do something we all know needs to happen but would never have had the will to do otherwise.
A small ask
Limiting the resurgence of Sea-Tac Airport to pre-COVID-19 levels will be my highest priority as an elected. But I’m just one person and I need your help: So I’m asking you to do your part and write that short email. I believe that together, we can use this moment to change the culture at Sea-Tac Airport– just a little bit. I cannot promise you that we will win everything. But I am 100% sure that we can win something–and definitely make far more progress than we have ever done. The moment is now.
Thanks in advance,
*To be clear, simply reducing the number of operations to 900 is not, by itself, a magic bullet for reducing noise in all areas surrounding Sea-Tac Airport. There are other procedural changes need to happen. But most of these cannot occur until the total number of operations is reduced.
†What most electeds and even well-informed activists are often unclear on is that the Port actually does have the authority to limit the number of flights by controlling its capacity. In fact, there are several mechanisms for doing so in FAA law already in use at large airports. To keep this piece to a readable length, we explore these avenues elsewhere. But the notion that a cap is ‘illegal’ or beyond the Port’s control is simply inaccurate. In fact, controlling capacity is one of the few real controls over aviation that the operator does have under Federal law.
‡To briefly cover the other defeatist objection, one often hears “my electeds won’t go for it”. There is this amazing cure for that, called… wait for it… ‘elections’. It is beyond surprising to us how little time activists spend grooming new candidates to run for office and educating them on the benefits of adopting positions that truly benefit their communities.