*Why There Is No Second Airport In Site

I admit to a bit of Schadenfreüde whenever I attend a public forum of electeds where the potential siting of a second airport is to be discussed. Because I know I’ll be witnessing my electeds feeling frustrated, patronised and condescended to. Which is how I feel a hundred or so times a year when I attend their events.

Among ‘the people’ there is always a lot of talk of how the ‘Evil Port Of Seattle’ has some nefarious plan to scuttle any talk of siting a second airport. Somehow ‘the fix is in’. But all of that talk is just rubbish. Ya wanna know why there is no second airport?

There’s no business case to be made.

(Well, that was simple.)

But that’s really the deal. It doesn’t pencil out. But look let’s be fair about it and do a ‘compare and contrast’, right?

First up, a new airport would require billions of new taxpayer dollars, cause massive disruption to existing infrastructure and likely not come on line for another twenty years. But on the plus side it would create oodles of short term construction jobs and a smaller set of long term jobs for the people who would staff the new facility. Let’s call that Option #1.

Now the Port Of Seattle has stated a zillion times that, although they do not take a position yea or nay on a second airport, they have a plan in place that they are confident can more than adequately handle the needs of the entire region for the next TWENTY FIVE YEARS. And the end cost to the taxpayers? Well, given the current state of the Port’s deep pockets and their ability to sell hundreds of millions of dollars of bonds every year at barn burner low rates, that cost might end up being close to zero (beyond the ongoing Tax Levy which is about $69 per year for the average tax payer). Sounds almost too good to be true, right? Let’s call that Option #2.

Quick show of hands: Who votes for Option #1?

No, not you… you live under the flight path. And no, not you either. Please return to the Day Room for your afternoon snack. The rest of you in the State Of Washington, I presume voted (objectively) for Option #1.

Sorry to sound just a wee bit bit snarky, but the problem with all the conspiracy theories is that they ignore the obvious: our situation is driven by practicality, not dark forces. If you were present at PSRC meetings where votes are taken (or the closed door sessions where the real sausages are made) on siting a second airport it’s clear that the other cities don’t feel like a second airport is needed. And that is because the Port Of Seattle has a proven track record of meeting regional demand. More or less. So when the Port Of Seattle says they can meet the PSRC’s growth forecasts without the costs and hassles of building a second airport? Who wouldn’t take that option, right?

Oh and by the way, circling back to the pluses of Option #1, namely ‘jobs’, remember that the Port Of Seattle’s Century Agenda promises to create 100,000 new jobs over the next twenty five years. So in other words, they promise to let the region have its cake and eat it too. We get to have all the good parts of a second airport, but without actually having to build a second airport (well, except for those pesky airport community whiners about ‘noise and pollution’. Why won’t they just go away?) So in a way, the Century Agenda is a very smart political play: it removes the one objection for the competition.

Ah, but what about all the potential COST SAVINGS! Why, shippers could save a TON of money by not having to fly over mountains or down the coast or up a lazy river without a you know what. Uh huh. As a former denizen of the logistics biz, let me tell you a little something about that world. It’s conservative. Extremely conservative. People who have to do mission-critical jobs tend to stick with what works until even after it’s dead, buried and not smelling so great. ‘Change’ is a four letter word to most airlines. (Yes, I know, it’s a five letter word to you.) So the idea of making wholesale changes to routes and planning would not happen until after the new airport was built. In other words, the cost savings for the airlines would not occur until years after the new airport was in use; after it had proven its viability (at the public’s expense, of course). So let’s just say that the taxpayers aren’t going to start seeing that fabulous ROI anytime soon.

Now back to that cake. I’ll grant you that it’s sad for people in the airport communities to get rained on with noise and pollution. The leaders of the PSRC would all be the first to admit as much. But that just isn’t a strong enough argument in the public consciousness. We of the airport communities haven’t made the case that noise and pollution from jet airplanes is as nasty as, say, asbestos, or even cigarettes. We haven’t made the case that we’re worth billions of dollars and all the disruption that building a new airport would cause. We haven’t made the case that we cannot be ignored under current law. And until it’s illegal? It’s legal. And if it’s legal? It will happen.

Don’t believe it? Just look in the newspaper. The Seattle Times runs a weekly article on the performance of the Port Of Seattle. It has nothing to do with pollution or noise or any other ‘impacts’. No, the article they always run shows flight and maritime data; their business performance. That is what the region values. If you want to know about what the region values in terms of environmentalism you’ll have to go to the water’s edge.

Last year, there were over fifty articles in the Seattle Times written by their ace environmental reporter Lynda Mapes. And nearly all of them were concerned with either Salmon, Orcas or both. That is what sells papers in Puget Sound: fish tales. Stories of lone, but charismatic and highly agonized whale mothers and their dead babies make the covers of our newspapers for days on end. Stories of entire communities getting screwed for decades by toxic airplanes? Those get covered about once every five years or so on average. (And when they do get coverage the language is always, “Homeowners appear ‘concerned’ about noise and exhaust fumes”. Hard hitting language, right?)

Can we just stop here for a moment so I can share something I fucking HATE about American public speech. Namely the word ‘concerned’. You use it as the all-purpose ‘unhappy word’. It seems to cover everything from ‘Ow, I bruised my toe’ to, ‘I’m going to have the President impaled over fiery logs!’ What makes me lose my shit in almost any public context is when I express my unhappiness over the problems with the airplanes flying over my house and the official does that ‘say it back to you’ thing (which I also hate) but re-words it like, “So what you’re telling me is that you’re ‘concerned’ about the airplanes and their potential impacts…” That kind of thing just throws all my chakras totally out of whack. Using the word in so many contexts is a tactic designed to completely trivialize the thing that the person is ‘concerned’ about.

Where was I. We will never get a second airport until we either a) make it environmentally unacceptable in the public’s mind to continue as we have been at Sea-Tac or b) build a strong business case for one.

Now to make it environmentally unacceptable to pollute as they do, we would have to create an unprecedented marketing campaign that makes Sea-Tac Airport the poster-child for bad airports in the United States. Given it’s central location in a large population that’s not an entirely preposterous idea. But doing so would require an all hands on deck effort from all manner of public and private partnerships in the region. I mean everyone from mayor on down would have to be part of such a campaign with the end goal to get on 60 Minutes and make airports the new cigarettes. Can you imagine building that that kind of community cooperation around Sea-Tac? (Are you willing to help with that kind of grass roots community organizing?)

And then, the most practical way to improve the business case for building a second airport is to reduce the extraordinary control that the Port Of Seattle has over Sea-Tac. As we’ve written many times, the Port Of Seattle is unlike any other major airport operator in the United States and thus, all of the options the FAA provides for controlling flights are even more difficult to achieve. So the first step in making another airport happen is by making Sea-Tac Airport less desirable for airlines, that is, by passing State laws which reduce the authority of the Port over Sea-Tac and thus devolve at least some control back to the communities. Once the communities have a say in how Sea-Tac runs, the airlines will instantly find reasons to work with other cities to make a second airport a reality. But until they want to move, forgive the pun, it ain’t gonna fly.

Crap. I wanted to end there. Nice quick punchline. But I couldn’t ignore the elephant in the room. OK, maybe it isn’t an elephant, maybe it just smells like one: namely the almost constant cost overruns, scandal and general funny-business that have plagued the Port almost since its inception in 1911. So yes, their promises will likely not be (cough) ‘one hundred percent accurate’. Things will cost way too much, take way too long, etc., etc. But it doesn’t matter. Trying to use those defects as talking points against siting a second airport is a total loser. In every Sea-Tac expansion we’ve looked at since 1971 there have been promises made and promises broken (Not a single project has been delivered on time and on budget; not one.) But those facts have never had any significant negative impact on the Port’s ability to raise the next round of funding. Apparently, the river of money that the Port generates is so plainly useful to the region that trying to fight it at that level is almost as pointless as fighting the non-metaphorical flowing body of water.

*Get it? 😀 I kill me.

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