The growth engines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport are at full thrust, fueled by the Puget Sound region’s rapidly expanding economy and population.
Those forces have spawned a worsening capacity crunch that affects the airport on many levels — including cramping its limited air and ground space, passenger terminals, jet gates and roadways as well as contributing to flight delays and swelling the lines of people cued up at security checkpoints as they try to catch flights.
At about 2,500 acres, Sea-Tac’s footprint is among the smallest of any major airport in the nation. Its three runways are never in use at the same time because of restricted airspace. More than 17% of flights through August of this year departed more than 15 minutes late, federal data shows.
The state Legislature this year passed a law mandating a search for a new airport site outside King County — either expanding existing facilities or developing a new one. Though Sea-Tac is undergoing mass construction to increase capacity, it is essentially landlocked.
“Short of condemning a lot of hotels, a cemetery and [International Boulevard], the site can’t support unlimited growth,” says Bob Wallace, a real estate developer who chaired a regional planning body called the Puget Sound Air Transportation Committee (PSATC), which studied airport capacity issues back in 1992 and ultimately recommended that a third runway be built.
“It took decades of bureaucratic wrangling, litigation and ultimately the most extensive environmental mitigation of any airport in the U.S. to get the relatively innocuous and obviously vitally needed third runway built at Sea-Tac,” Wallace says.
When all was said and done, that process cost more than $1 billion, up from an initial estimate of $405 million.
The decision to site a new airport is made even more difficult because the two dominant airlines at Sea-Tac — locally based Alaska Air Group Inc. and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. — are lining up on opposite sides. The two account for more than 70% of all passenger traffic at the airport. Both support making Sea-Tac as efficient as possible, but Alaska also insists that airport expansion options outside Sea-Tac must be pursued, while Delta has no interest in going that route.
Also affecting the dynamics is the difference in the airlines’ business models. Alaska is the dominant domestic-flight carrier in the region and benefits from being able to offer broader service options outside Sea-Tac. Delta, however, has carved out a position as the leading international carrier at Sea-Tac — which means the airline needs to ensure convenient connecting flights for its international passengers.
Given those opposing positions, the way forward appears fraught with political landmines. But there appears to be little choice given the stakes.
Sea-Tac, now the eighth busiest airport in the nation, served nearly 50 million passengers last year, up 43% since 2013. That number is projected to exceed a staggering 66 million by 2034. Fueling that passenger growth is the four-county Puget Sound region’s rapidly expanding population — now at 4.1 million and projected to reach 5.8 million by 2050, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC).
The gross domestic product of the greater Seattle area, a measure of all economic activity in the region, also has exploded, expanding by 34% between 2012 and 2017 to $357 billion, the most recent federal figures show. Reflecting that economic propulsion is the cargo growth at Sea-Tac, which skyrocketed by 48% between 2013 and 2018, to more than 432,000 metric tons.
“If we don’t solve this problem, the growth continues, and what suffers is the level of service,” says Sea-Tac Managing Director Lance Lyttle. “The growth that has taken place at this airport is a direct reflection of the growth that has taken place within the region. We don’t control the growth. We respond to it.”
The Washington Roundtable, in partnership with the Boston Consulting Group, recently conducted a transportation forecast study for the Puget Sound region that included a focus on airports. Among its preliminary findings: Even after accounting for scheduled expansion plans at Sea-Tac, maximum operating capacity will be reached by 2029 — leading to a 750% increase in delay hours and about $24 billion in negative economic impact by 2040.
“Business leaders are increasingly expressing serious concerns that congestion and delay at Sea-Tac airport are affecting their businesses,” says Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable, whose board is comprised of senior executives from Washington state’s major private-sector employers. This concern is not limited to central Puget Sound.
“One of our members from the Tri-Cities told me recently that lack of predictability at Sea-Tac airport is having a tangible effect on his business,” Mullin says, “because employees have to assume that they will miss their connections for the most convenient and efficient itineraries.”
Suzanne Fletcher-Juneau, a Seattle-based senior associate with the global travel consultancy Inform Logistics and past president of the Puget Sound Business Travel Association, says the combination of Boeing, Amazon and Microsoft alone generated an estimated $650 million in air-travel spending last year.
“However, we must remember air spend is just a piece of the pie,” she says. “The impact of delays and layovers can cost companies millions of dollars.”
One example of how Sea-Tac’s operations touch other elements of the Seattle economy beyond business air travel can be found in the city’s cruise-ship industry. Perry Cooper, spokesperson for Sea-Tac, says about 70% of the Seattle area’s more than 1 million annual cruise visitors go through Sea-Tac.
But determining the future of Sea-Tac and aviation services in the Puget Sound region is about more than money and economic impact, says Josh Brown, executive director of the PSRC. The quality of life in the region also is at stake.
“It’s not just about businesses,” Brown says. “It’s also about taking the kids to Disneyland or visiting grandma. We all want to be able to do the things that help us live great lives, so this is a shared challenge we have in terms of the solution part.”
EXPLOSIVE GROWTH. Sea-Tac Managing Director Lance Lyttle oversees the nation’s eighth busiest airport, with some 50 million passengers served last year, up 43% since 2013. Photo by Hayley Young
Sea-Tac currently has about 100 capital-improvement projects in the pipeline that will cost an estimated $3.7 billion during the next five years, Cooper says. The roster of capital projects includes the $658.3 million renovation of the airport’s North Satellite facility; the development of a $968 million International Arrivals Facility; and the $17 million renovation of the Central Terminal to add dining, retail and seating space. All three projects are slated to be completed between the summer of 2020 and the spring of 2021. But they represent only the tip of the iceberg.
Phase 1 of Sea-Tac’s Sustainable Airport Master Plan (SAMP) is now under environmental review and calls for 30 additional projects that are slated to be completed or under construction by 2027, including a new 19-gate airport terminal. The price tag for those projects, Cooper says, is another $4.5 billion — for a grand total of some $8.2 billion in capital and SAMP projects. Funding for the slew of projects will come from a combination of revenue bonds, airline and passenger fees, and federal grants.
Shane Jones, vice president of airport affairs and development at Alaska Airlines, says the airline believes Sea-Tac’s current airport master plan is not the right one for the region, however. That plan, Jones adds, calls for spending $2.3 billion to develop a 19-gate terminal on a site disconnected from the existing main terminal — requiring “passengers connecting between terminals to exit security and take a bus.” Jones adds that it would “serve as an expensive aircraft parking lot, with tarmac delays of more than an hour during busy periods of the travel day and more than three hours in poor weather conditions.”
Alaska instead favors a different approach at Sea-Tac, he says, “namely adding gates to the main terminal, and ensuring new gates are connected to the main terminal and inside security, and improving the overall experience of travelers at check-in, security and throughout the main terminal concourses.” Alaska also supports the state-led effort to find airport alternatives outside Sea-Tac.
“Even with the addition of new gates, airspace and runway constraints will continue to dictate the maximum number of aircraft that can feasibly serve Sea-Tac,” Jones says. “We need to be thinking about long-term viable solutions to accommodate the growth, including the potential for secondary airports in the Puget Sound region.”
GLOBAL REACH: Sea-Tac is expanding its international muscle with the construction of a $968 million International Arrivals Facility, a multilevel complex slated to open next year that will expand the number of gates that can accommodate international wide-body airplanes from 12 to 20. Photo by Gene Faught
Delta, by contrast, prefers to expand Sea-Tac’s capacity to handle growth during the next 15 years — the period covered by the SAMP.
“The best way to address current and future needs is to continue moving forward as quickly as possible with the Port’s Sustainable Airport Master Plan, which will increase the number of gates at the airport and help to accommodate future growth as well as the growth the region has experienced over the last few years,” says Liz Savadelis, spokesperson for Delta Air Lines. “We are not looking for another airport for our operations.”
Another slate of Sea-Tac projects is expected to be identified in Phase 2 of the SAMP that will be designed to address longer-term airport capacity needs. Planning for Phase 2 is scheduled to begin after the completion of a major regional aviation-baseline study now underway by the PSRC — a study being funded by a $1.6 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration. The so-called baseline study is designed to provide a “clear picture of the aviation activities and needs” in the Puget Sound region through 2050, with a final report scheduled to be published in the fall of 2020.
Some of the initial data from the PSRC study has already been released. It shows that even with completion of the long-term SAMP projects — which are projected to increase total aircraft gates to 113, up from the current 83 — Sea-Tac “will not be able to meet the region’s 2050 demand for passenger air service.”
“Two years ago, the FAA approached the PSRC because they began to see trends with the enormous growth happening at Sea-Tac that at some point were going to be impacting the nation’s airport system,” Brown says. “And for the FAA, when they get into a position where a metropolitan region, an airport, begins to impact the national system, it’s their responsibility to manage that. And there’s two ways to do that.”
Brown says one way is to institute what’s known as “slot control,” where the FAA determines how many planes can take off and land at the airport at any given time. “The other thing that the FAA can do is to begin the process working with communities to think about what can be done to solve the problem.”
Courtney Gregoire, a Port of Seattle commissioner who also is assistant general counsel for Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit, adds that the capacity problem, left unaddressed, will lead to higher flight prices at Sea-Tac, too, because of the demand and supply imbalance. “You will see a diminished ability for many people to travel, to see family, or to go on that lifelong family vacation, or to travel for work as a small-business owner,” she says.
The state legislation enacted this past spring seeks to address Sea-Tac’s growing capacity crunch by establishing a new state commission composed of representatives from government, business and the community appointed by the governor. The commission is charged with coming up with a short list of six preferred locations for developing a new airport outside King County by Jan. 1, 2021. That list must be narrowed down to a single preferred location by Jan. 1, 2022.
“We just don’t have the capacity in King County to build it,” says Washington state Sen. Karen Keiser, who co-sponsored the enabling legislation. Keiser is a Democrat representing the 33rd District, which encompasses parts of Burien, Normandy Park, SeaTac, Kent and Des Moines — all communities located near Sea-Tac International Airport that are most affected by the airport’s operations. “This is not a study,” Keiser says. “We’re not doing any more studies. This is a decision-making process that is laid out in legislation.”
In Washington, however, regional decision-making processes can take decades to play out. The third runway recommended by the PSATC in 1992, for example, wasn’t completed until 2008 — in large measure because of environmental hurdles and a lengthy court battle waged by runway opponents.
At the time, the PSATC also recommended that commercial airline services be added at Paine Field by 2000 and that a new commercial airport be developed south of Seattle, either at what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma or “in the Loveland area of Pierce County or in the Olympia/Black Lake area of Thurston County.” Paine Field service was finally launched this year, but the proposed new commercial airport never took off.
Keiser notes that the ultimate solution coming from the recently established airport-siting commission could be a build-out of a current airport, a brand-new airport or “a series of different aviation facilities, maybe one dedicated to air cargo — those are all possibilities.” The last major new airport developed in the United States, Denver International Airport, which opened in 1995, cost $4.8 billion to build — or about $8.1 billion in 2019 dollars.
The Puget Sound region is home to 29 airports, ranging from the behemoth Sea-Tac to smaller regional facilities like the Auburn and Renton municipal airports, King County’s Boeing Field and Olympia Regional Airport in Thurston County. Statewide there are nearly 140 public-use airports, the bulk of them community, local service and rural airports, according to a guide published by the Washington State Department of Transportation.
One problem with respect to Keiser’s suggestion of potentially developing a dedicated air-cargo airport is the fact that about a third of all cargo — and 45% of international cargo — is carried in the bellies of commercial passenger jets. The balance is handled by freight aircraft. So, moving cargo services from Sea-Tac to a dedicated cargo airport would require rethinking logistics, given a cargo pallet may come into the country on freight carrier and then be transferred to the belly of a passenger aircraft for delivery elsewhere in the country, for example.
On another front, Snohomish County's Paine Field, which currently has one terminal with two gates that can accommodate 24 commercial aircraft departures per day, has been mentioned as a possible site for future passenger-service expansion. But it also is home to a Boeing assembly plant and has plenty of other business on its plate already, says Airport Director Arif Ghouse.
“Paine Field hosts a diverse range of operations, including major aircraft manufacturing and maintenance, general aviation, flying schools, aviation colleges, museums, tours and now commercial passenger service,” Ghouse says. “With the start in March 2019, the county remains focused on ensuring the successful operation of current levels of commercial passenger service.”
Another proposal involves Grant County International Airport, located east of the Cascade Range near Moses Lake. Rich Mueller, the airport director, and Jeffrey Bishop, the former executive director of the Port of Moses Lake, which oversees the airport, confirm that port officials have lobbied state legislators to encourage them to consider Grant County International, which boasts five runways, as a potential location for international flights, or possibly as an air-cargo center.
The plan, however, includes a proposal to build a high-speed rail line through the mountains that would connect the airport near Moses Lake with Seattle, which is about 190 miles away. Wallace says the Grant County airport idea “was pushed heavily by anti-Sea-Tac forces” in the third-runway debate in the 1990s.
“High-speed rail is probably a pipe dream for a number of economic and physical reasons,” he adds. “Can you imagine a Microsoft road warrior taking a red-eye from Dubai or Sydney, arriving at Moses Lake, waiting an hour or two for a train to Seattle, then spending another hour or so on a train? It would be the best economic-development gift we could send Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia.”
GRAND HALL. The new International Arrivals Facility at Sea-Tac will feature a 450,000-square-foot grand hall for baggage claim and customs processing. Photo by Gene Faught
Still, the Port of Moses Lake’s lobbying earned it a seat on the new state airport-siting commission, which has 15 voting members.
The ultimate decisions made about airport expansion and development carry enormous implications for the two major airlines riding Sea-Tac’s growth wave: Alaska and Delta. Some perspective on their respective business models helps explain their divergent views. Between 2009 and 2018, Alaska’s overall Sea-Tac passenger count has jumped 61%, from 15 million to 24.1 million — the bulk of that domestic flight service.
Delta’s overall passenger growth at Sea-Tac during the same period skyrocketed sixfold, from 1.9 million to 11.5 million passengers served. Delta’s international-service growth at Sea-Tac is particularly impressive. Delta wasn’t even ranked among the top 10 airlines providing international service at Sea-Tac in 2009. Last year, Delta ranked first, with 1.7 million international passengers served and a 31.3% market share — with Sea-Tac being a key Pacific gateway hub to lucrative international markets, particularly Asia.
One industry expert, who asked not to be named, describes the situation like this: An expansion of aviation services outside Sea-Tac offers Alaska more options to serve its customers, such as its expansion earlier this year to Paine Field in Snohomish County 25 miles north of Seattle. And it also helps the airline consolidate its domestic competitive advantage at Sea-Tac by siphoning off future competition there.
By contrast, for Delta’s international flights at Sea-Tac to thrive, the airline depends on those travelers having ease of access to connecting flights. For many international travelers, Sea-Tac is not the final destination but rather a middle point on the way to another destination. Consequently, it’s not in Delta’s business interest to make connecting flights more difficult, and it would likely lose international travelers if they are forced to travel to another airport for connecting flights.
“The politics, the community impacts, are very real. If you live very close to Sea-Tac International Airport, why do you disproportionately bear the noise, the potential health impacts from pollution for our entire state’s benefit?” Gregoire asks. “How do we both all enjoy the benefits and maybe more equitably share the burdens? I would say that is a big part of the conversation that says: Where else can some of this traffic go across the state?”