What do Port Packages have to do with me?

Perhaps the most common question we get these days is “Why do you keep going on about ‘Port Packages’? I don’t care about Port Packages. I care about all the damned planes! That is what we should be focused on!”

This is a great question. It’s the only question, really because it gets to the heart of our strategic understanding of how to get what we all want: fewer flights and best practice protections from the impacts from flights we must endure.

We believe that the impacts of airplane traffic over communities should be thought of primarily as social and political issues and only secondarily in terms ‘noise’ or ‘pollution’. The problem is not facts. We have always had the facts on our side. The data on the harms of living around large airports gets more sophisticated with each passing year, but even back in the seventies, it was clear that we faced difficult health and socio-economic challenges.

The problem is that, as with so many issues (like climate change) one cannot simply give decision makers ‘the facts’ and then expect them to do the right things. That has never worked. Activists keep trying to sharpen their messaging and pile on more studies only to get more and more frustrated as to why each generation of decision makers are reluctant to act.

But as with any similar issues, this approach cannot work because this is an extremely complex political problem. It’s not a ‘good vs. evil’ story. In fact, some of the most difficult players in these issues are lawmakers who want to help–our own legislators, in fact. These are well-intentioned, intelligent people who are thrilled to vote for legislation to help airport community residents. Just so long as it avoids conflict with the Port Of Seattle. After all, the Port is involved in literally hundreds of very worthy projects throughout the State Of Washington that have nothing to do with the airport. We’re talking millions of dollars in projects in literally every District. Woe to any lawmaker who chooses to vote for legislation that might, in any way, impact revenues from Sea-Tac Airport.

Unfortunately, airport activists have not approached the problem as a political issue, with a well-thought out strategy that borrows from other social issue movements that have had success. Generally, efforts have been fairly inept compared with the sophisticated campaigns run by advocates for other issues as fair afield as gun rights, campaign contributions, LGBTQ rights and HIV research .

Storming the castle

The question then is: What is the best strategy, given the political realities? What we have noticed, over and over, is that successful campaigns by groups on a wide variety of issues, on either side of the political aisle, all tend to follow the same general outline, which we call, “In through the side door.”

By that we mean that, one almost never obtains success by “storming the castle gates”, ie. by attacking the issue head on as almost all of us want to do: Quick, decisive victory. This usually doesn’t work because the law one wants to change best protects itself from direct attack. And in our case, Federal Aviation Law is almost impregnable. We may get the occasional small victory, but many are ultimately reversed and none have lead to real policy changes.

What does seem to work are indirect strategies. One obtains small changes that are, on their face, not threatening to the current system, while providing some real benefit to activists. The starting point is to create a few ‘win/wins’ that both sides can consider ‘PR’ victories, but which are mainly to establish the notion that change is possible; that negotiation is normal. We want to go from a situation where change is basically unthinkable to a mood where, change is actually possible. Still unlikely, but now possible. You have to give activists hope while giving the status quo the understanding that they must do more than just ‘talk’ from this point forward.

A practical example

A pair of laws are now working their way through the Washington State Legislature that seek to do exactly this. SB6214 and HB2315 have a modest, but very real goal: provide people with damaged Port Packages a way to get repairs and updates. It’s so obvious in its fairness that no one can be against it on the merits.

The original Port Package program, which includes State law, was deeply flawed in three basic ways:

  • First, it hurt hundreds of homeowners through bad designs and installs which have caused structural damage–mainly through water condensation. Their houses are now actually worse than if they had not received a Port Package.
  • Then there are the literally thousands of homes with no visible damage which nonetheless suffers from mold because of a poor system design.
  • And finally, there is the fact that those Port Packages were designed to work at a time when there were far fewer flights. And that means that many more thousands of homes now have Port Packages that are simply ineffective in reducing the noise level to their original design spec..

These bills represent the first State legislation in literally decades that holds the Port accountable for its actions. Prior to this legislation, it has been unthinkable that the State might intervene at the Port in any fashion on behalf of the community. This establishes a precedent that further makes further legislation possible.

From indirect to direct steps

Federal Law (ANCA) says that the operators are supposed to weigh community interests against commerce in their decisions. They (the Port Of Seattle) have never done that. The Port always sides with the airlines, citing a ‘greater good’ argument we talk about so much here (that the economic benefits of Sea-Tac Airport are so enormous that they overwhelm any arguments that might reduce air traffic in any way.) HB2315 and SB6214 re-balances that equation. This law will send a message to the Port that they should be more on the side of the community in all our relationships; that they no longer have a free pass to avoid paying for any damages they cause to our communities.

Changing Federal Aviation law is amazingly difficult because the basic tenets of ANC are so iron-clad. Add in the current political climate which is not conducive to any legislation that is perceived to be anti-business or pro-environment and you have a recipe for long-term frustration.

But what if the Port, which has a ton of discretion in interpreting its role as an advocate for the community, were to begin to be more on our side? How would that look? This legislation  is the first step towards that goal.

What could happen

Believe it or not, the Port Of Seattle used to be the innovator in all manner of noise management programs. Most of the original concepts for reducing noise around airfields (and in homes) throughout the United States started at Sea-Tac Airport. But that was over thirty years ago. Since that time the Port has almost totally given up on its role in protecting community interests ( we believe primarily because of the fraught Third Runway process.) Providing a decent plan for repairing, updating and eventually expanding the range of Port Packages, is a necessary first step in getting the Port more on ‘our side’.

And once the Port takes their duty to balance community interests against those of commerce, they can provide a powerful voice at the Federal level to help influence the permanent changes we all want regarding the flights: both frequency and paths. Really. Truly. They already have a serious lobbying effort in Washington D.C. which could be re-purposed towards occasionally looking out for our needs. It’s fair to say that support from the Port Of Seattle would allow for a breakthrough on Federal legislation.

The long game

Is this a long and tedious and frustrating process? Yer darn tootin’.  But again, if one looks at any successful campaign on any issue (and again, again there are success stories on all sides of the political spectrum), one notices the same pattern I just described.

This is a strategy that works. So for us it comes down to a slow but steady strategy of not always obvious, but continuous small gains, versus a direct and more emotionally satisfying strategy that, unfortunately, tends to fail over and over and over.

It’s a long game no matter how you play it. Having studied the history, we choose the strategy that has a proven track record of success. Port Packages today, wide-spread airport reform in the future.

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