Who decides what happens at Sea-Tac Airport?

If you’re trying to get some relief from all the flights, you probably will have some questions like, “Who do I blame?” And it gets confusing because there are three entities that share responsibility for everything that goes on at Sea-Tac Airport: the FAA, The Port Of Seattle, and the airlines.

The Operator: Property Manager

The operator of Sea-Tac Airport is The Port Of Seattle. (‘Operator’ is the FAA’s term of art.) So The Port manages the property and acts as landlord for their their customers, the airlines. Theoretically (ie. on a planet other than Earth) The operator could decide to not host a particular airline, however this is extremely unlikely because the FAA has a series of rules which ‘encourage’ airport operators to be as accommodating as possible to commercial airlines. This is an essential policy directive of the United States Congress laid down in the Airport Noise and Capacity Act Of 1990 (ANCA): to encourage air travel and commerce.

However, all big airport operators do compete for business, ie. airlines and flights. The operator indirectly affects the number and types of flights by the rates that they charge their tenants (the airlines). Airlines occasionally will move business from one airport over another based on favorable rates.

As of 2018 Sea-Tac Airport’s is at around 70% of the most expensive rates. They’ve moved up a bit in order to pay for the planned expansions outlined in the SAMP.

Because the airport operator manages the property, The Port Of Seattle controls where the planes park as well as the physical configuration of the runways (subject to FAA safety rules.) And this can also constrain flight operations in a couple of ways. First, because the airport may only have so many places to physically park the planes. You can’t just leave them laying around anywhere right? You have to have gates to process passengers and places to safely maintain the planes. You also have to have a system of roads between the runways to get the planes to and from their hangars.

The number of flights is also constrained by the runways. For example, only the first (eastern) runway is long enough to handle flights for certain types of planes under all weather conditions. And the narrow distance between the second and third runways prevents those two from usually being run at the same time.

The Port Of Seattle is responsible for insuring that all that infra-structure is safe. And that gives  the airport operator one key point of control, the airport operator’s one superpower: The operator has the power to determine when they have reached capacity. The Port Of Seattle Commission could (again in an alternate galaxy far, far away) simply vote to stop building and cap the number of flights at a certain level. They could do this if they decided that going beyond that number of daily operations would not be safe. (Safety is the FAA’s prime directive.) Yes, they would definitely get push back from the airlines and have to show some decent evidence, but the law is quite clear: the operator has the final say.

One other thing: the airport operator is also responsible for the security and safety of the planes once they are parked. Once a plane has stopped moving? The Port is responsible for that plane. So, just to give a completely nutty, never could happen example, say an insane employee hijacked a plane, took off without permission and then went on a suicidal joyride? Yeah, that would be on the Port Of Seattle.

For the sake of completeness, one other detail concerning safety and security: Since Sea-Tac Airport exists inside the boundaries of The City Of SeaTac, the City and the Airport have an Inter-Local Agreement (ILA) which provides for cooperation on matters like police and fire. But aside from a catastrophic event that might threaten the very existence of Sea-Tac Airport (sorry, I got a bit excited there 😀 ), the City Of SeaTac has nothing to do with airport operations.

The Airlines: Where and when

Beyond that, it is the airlines decide when and where to fly. They can go to Fiji or Florida. And they can come and go whenever they like. 24/7/365. That’s also a part of ANCA. So long as The Port Of Seattle does not declare that it has reached capacity it cannot limit the flights a tenant wants to run in any way which is why mandatory curfews are not possible.

The FAA: The Conductor

Now, in general, when a plane is moving, it is under the control of the tower–which is the FAA. The air traffic controller (ATC) is an FAA employee. As soon as a plane powers up and starts taxiing from its parking place to the runway, the ATC is in charge of what that plane is doing; not the Port Of Seattle and (mostly) not the airline.

However the pilot/airline does have control over certain aspects of the plane’s operation, such as taxiing, take-off and landing in the same way that a person driving a car has options while in a parking garage. You can do what you want so long as you follow the rules. In the case of a plane, the rules for taxiing, take-off and landing are set by the FAA. So, for example, a pilot can choose to taxi at different speeds, use different amounts of power take-off or landing, use reverse thrust (or not), within the FAA safety rules. Of course some of those choices are noisier than others and each airline have a series of (voluntary) policies in place to make their take-offs and landings more or less quiet. However, these are voluntary.  And even if they don’t follow these policies, they can simply say that the pilot decided that a particularly noisy decision was taken for the sake of ‘safety and efficiency’. And that’s not a marketing gimmick. That turn of phrase is specified in FAA rules as the governing principle of all commercial flight: safety first, efficiency second and everything else comes after. Full stop.

The short answer

The practical effect of all this is that the local community has absolutely no say in when planes take off and land, how often they take off and land,  the routes they follow and their conduct on the airfield. Each part of the operator-airline-FAA triad has a role to play in the dance that is air travel, but nowhere in that equation are the people living near the airport.

What we think

The basic law governing all of this is laid out in that darned ANCA. So you might think (and you’d be right) that the simplest and most direct path to relief would be to make some changes to ANCA. Unfortunately, this has been the road less traveled by lawmakers. Actually it’s been the road not taken at all. There have been exactly zero attempts to change ANCA in any meaningful way to benefit airport communities since its passage in 1990. And that right there should tell you what Congress really thinks about residents of airport communities. Instead, there have been a number of attempts to do studies on the impacts of the flights, improve noise mitigation a bit, offer communities more ‘engagement’ with the airport operator and the FAA (although notably not the airlines) and do some minor tweaks to flight procedures to compel pilots to use the least noisy strategies while on or near the airfield.

But there is, to date, simply no political will, at any level,  to change the control of any of the above aspects of airplane operation to include airport communities. And without having a voice in that control, we cannot expect meaningful relief.  Activists should be extremely skeptical of any lawmaker’s attempts to help affected residents unless their proposals include changes to the control of the airplanes: on the ground, during take-off and landing, and in the air above our communities.

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