Airport in a Storm

For several years in the 1980s, I lived in Houston, a city with two airports. Invariably, when I had a choice, I flew out of Hobby, the smaller, in-city passenger airport. It was closer, more convenient, much easier to get to.

That's why I'm intrigued by Southwest Airlines' proposal to set up shop at Boeing Field. It's early in the process, and there are a lot of potential pitfalls—money, traffic, and access, and especially noise mitigation for Beacon Hill and other nearby neighborhoods.

But the proposal, accompanied by $130 million from Southwest on the table to help pay for the needed improvements to Boeing Field itself, at minimum deserves to be studied. Which is exactly what cannot happen if Dwight Pelz, the King County Council member who is running for Seattle City Council, has his way. Pelz has introduced legislation that would prohibit the county, which owns Boeing Field, from spending a penny on Southwest's potential move from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The way County Executive Ron Sims' office tells it, it is legally obligated to at least study the possibility of passenger service at Boeing Field. But that hasn't stopped the naysayers. The Port of Seattle and its well-placed friends, including the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and members of Congress, have come out swinging against the idea, for no other apparent reason than that it would cost the Port, which runs Sea-Tac Airport, money.

This deserves a closer look.

One of the things the Southwest proposal has underscored is how badly Sea-Tac, and particularly its expansion, has been managed over the years. Because of the exorbitant costs of that expansion, particularly the ill-conceived and still-not-completed third runway, Sea-Tac is among the most expensive airports in the country for landing fees and other costs to airlines. We've also learned that the Port has spent $2 billion more than previously known on its expansion. It's little wonder Seattle-based Alaska Airlines immediately jumped after Southwest's proposal to express interest in Boeing Field, too. Other airlines are reportedly interested, and not out of love for the consumer, but because they're tired of dealing with the Port.

To distract from this record, the Port of Seattle went nuclear in its response— averring that if Southwest departed Sea-Tac, there wouldn't be enough money for terminal improvements needed to accommodate Sound Transit's light rail. The fact that Southwest wouldn't be leaving until 2009, and that such improvements would need to be made sooner than that, apparently didn't enter into things. Nor did the claim, repeatedly made by the Port while promoting the third runway project, that even with the extra capacity Sea-Tac would be bursting at the seams in a few years. If there's more demand for passenger service into Seattle than one airport can handle, what's the problem with diverting some of it to another airport?

Alas, Boeing Field would not be much of a second airport. Its capacity for passenger service is limited by available space for terminals and parking. Another airline, like Alaska or jointly owned regional carrier Horizon Air, might be able to join Southwest. A half-dozen could not. One outcome of the studies under way might be that it makes more sense to take the resources that would be used to establish Boeing Field for passenger service and instead apply them to establishing a real new regional airport somewhere.

In the corrupt, you-scratch-my-business-deal-and-I'll-scratch-yours world of the Port of Seattle, it's no surprise that it was able to call in a lot of chits and generate what seemed like a lot of initial opposition to the Boeing Field idea. But this is not to be confused with actual public opinion—which can be divided by the noise, traffic, and cost concerns on one side and the appeal of an airport with low-cost carriers 10 miles closer to downtown on the other. The real public has largely not been heard from, and some type of public process will have to be designed and incorporated into any decision making on Southwest's proposal.

In Houston, where Hobby Airport was 20 miles closer to anything (and not, as is Houston's other airport, named for an execrable recent ex-president), the choice was easy. Here in Seattle, where city officials actually care about things like noise, it might not be such an easy call. But the proposal deserves, at least, not to be rejected out of hand. Think of it this way: Anything the Port of Seattle hates can't be so bad.

gparrish@seattleweekly.com

 
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