By Terry Stephens
A major business and community protest campaign in Seattle is trying to put the chocks on Southwest Airlines’ proposed move from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to nearby Boeing Field, an effort by the discount airline to protect itself from rising fees for paying off Sea-Tac’s $4 billion expansion and third runway costs.
Even usually vocal free enterprise groups such as the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce are siding with opponents who fear more flights, more noise, more taxpayer expense and an upsetting of the region’s carefully planned airport system. Since Southwest’s plan was announced last June, so many opponents have surfaced that in late August several separate groups formed a coalition, Sound Air Alliance (www.soundairalliance.org), to increase pressure on the King County Council to reject Southwest’s proposed move. The issue is expected to take months to make its way through hearings, studies and debates.
Along with Seattle’s chamber of commerce, members of the alliance include the Washington Roundtable, Magnolia Community Club, Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg and a neighborhood group known as Friends of Boeing Field.
Critics say they fear Southwest’s defection would attract others, particularly Alaska Airlines and Horizon, to Boeing Field, moves that would reduce revenues for Sea-Tac Airport that are needed to pay off the airport’s expansion debt. Alaska and Horizon have already announced that Southwest’s move would force them to operate up to 100 daily flights from Boeing Field to remain competitive.
Critics of the changes predict that those three airlines alone could bring an influx of more than five million passengers a year to Boeing Field, which is primarily a general aviation airport.
“Establishing commercial passenger service at Boeing Field is a bad idea,” said Sound Air Alliance steering committee member Steve Leahy, president and CEO of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. “This broad stakeholder group has come together because we all agree there is no wisdom in having two busy commercial airports located a few miles apart and sharing the same airspace.”
Opponents of the Southwest plan also maintain that taxpayers shouldn’t have to finance infrastructure improvements or aviation facilities for Southwest at Boeing Field.
“Anyone looking at the proposal to turn Boeing Field into a busy commercial airport cannot, with a straight face, expect the public to believe that taxpayer dollars aren’t going to be required,” said Bob Wallace, CEO of Wallace Properties in Bellevue and a member of the Sound Air Alliance steering committee. “Scarce tax dollars, already stretched thin to fund important regional transportation projects, should not be stretched further to cover infrastructure for a project that is not a priority.”
Southwest, a low-fare, no-frills airline feeling its profits squeezed by higher user fees and limited operating space at Sea-Tac, wants to operate from a less costly and less crowded venue. To alleviate area residents’ fears of noise problems, Southwest has pledged to use over-the-water landing patterns to reduce jet noise and to buy more of the most modern “quiet” jetliners, potentially more business for the Boeing Co., particularly in 737 sales. Southwest has extensive experience operating from noise-sensitive airports, including Dallas Love Field and Chicago Midway airports. Its 737s are quieter, studies have shown, than most corporate jets and many of the cargo jets now using Boeing Field.
The airline has announced it would build its own $130 million passenger terminal and an adjacent seven-story parking garage, as well as increasing its 36 daily flights from Sea-Tac, owned by the Port of Seattle, to 85 flights a day from Boeing Field, which is owned and operated by King County.
King County Executive Ron Sims has said that he is obligated by law to consider any proposal by any airline that wants to come to Boeing Field.
“We have a lot of institutions saying it’s OK for people to pay more,” Sims said. “You can’t dispute Southwest’s ability to not only drive down the cost of airfares but also to keep airfares at competitive prices. That is a savings to the public.”
But political issues are adding to the mix of economic issues being raised over the highly emotional issue of airlines breaking away from the region’s major airport. Already, the state’s congressional delegation—including Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Representatives Jay Inslee, Rick Larson, Brian Baird, Adam Smith and Norm Dicks—has warned in a letter to Sims that the move would likely result in “a reduction in regional air service,” weaken Alaska Airline’s “position in the marketplace” and require the spending of more taxpayer dollars.
At the same time, with Sims’ post on the ballot this fall and positions on the King County Council also up for grabs, sides are being chosen rapidly. Two council members have already introduced a proposed county ordinance that would prohibit the county executive from spending any taxpayer money on an impact study of Southwest’s proposal, a study Sims has already announced he plans to launch.
Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for Sims, attributes the formation of the opposition coalition group to the political pressure of the Port of Seattle, claiming the whole issue is becoming a “turf war” between the two airports. Formed just a few weeks ago, Sound Air Alliance already has launched a polished, extensive Internet site for stating its arguments against the move and has generated widespread news media coverage of the issue. The forming of the alliance “boosts the appearance of opposition to Southwest’s proposal,” Kaushik said.
Sound Air Alliance members raise the point that longstanding regional aviation planning doesn’t include using Boeing Field for commercial passenger operations. In 1996, when the development of other airports in the region was considered, the Puget Sound Regional Council voted instead to meet the region’s air travel needs by supporting the addition of a third runway and new terminal facilities at Sea-Tac.
“The decision about where to locate the next regional airport should be made right here, not in a Texas boardroom,” said Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, in a news conference statement. “If Southwest Airlines moves to Boeing Field, it won’t matter where we want the next gateway airport because other airlines will follow and the decision will be made for us.”
Supporters of the move, including Seattle radio talk show host John Carlson, have raised the free enterprise question, arguing that competition is good for everyone, particularly airline passengers. Southwest would be offering consumers a choice, giving them the option of flying out of Boeing Field, which is closer to downtown Seattle, as well as offering more flights, he said.
Terry Trippler, an airline industry tracker with Cheapseats.com, agreed. “Generally speaking, in watching this industry for a long time, if it’s good for Southwest Airlines, it’s good for the consumer,” he said.
Comments to the media from consumers in the Seattle area have reflected considerable support for the move since Boeing Field would offer a less congested alternative to Sea-Tac as well as lower airline rates. Although critics of the plan point out that Boeing Field doesn’t have the same freeway access as Sea-Tac and that more roads would have to be built or improved, supporters note that the I-5 freeway through Seattle already has exits to both the north and south ends of Boeing Field.
“You can talk about free enterprise all you want but when a move like this one impacts established regional planning it’s a bad idea,” said alliance spokesman Scott Ingham. “We think there needs to be order to the planning process for regional airports. In fact, the state Department of Transportation’s aviation division has just begun a two-year study of where an airport alternative to Sea-Tac should be developed. Southwest is a great airline and we want them to stay at Sea-Tac. They have a loyal following and will continue to do well there.”
He also said that all of the general aviation pilots he has talked to at Boeing Field say moves by Southwest, Alaska and Horizon would bring so many daily flights to the county airfield that “general aviation will be shut down there, leaving only the commercial airlines, Nordstrom’s and Paul Allen’s business jets and Boeing’s airliner operations.”
Mic Dunmore, CEO of the Port of Seattle, said various players stand to win or lose if Southwest moves to Boeing Field, but his opinion is that citizens as a whole would lose. He said it would mean the cost of Sea-Tac operations and the current $4.1 billion expansion and runway would be spread among the remaining airlines, which would translate into higher ticket prices for air passengers not flying on Southwest.
“Any economic benefit of employment at Boeing Field would merely be a move of jobs away from another part of the county and the aircraft noise would move to new neighborhoods,” he added.
Even port officials, however, don’t argue with the prediction that if Southwest moves to Boeing Field, increases its flights and even adds other routes, overall ticket prices to those destinations from all airlines will decrease, due to the competition.
Southwest, the aggressive Dallas-based air carrier that managed to lower costs and stay profitable even through the post-Sept. 11 impact that drove the airline industry into a tail-spin, is simply continuing its marketing plan, said Tom Parsons, chief executive at Bestfares.com.
“Southwest is probably the biggest gorilla in America when it comes to air travel,” he said recently.
A federal Department of Transportation study of Philadelphia flights when Southwest began flying there last year shows that average competing fares on its busiest routes dropped by three to 83 percent. Before Southwest started that service, ticket prices on the same routes were 20 percent higher than the national average. A year later, the same prices were two percent below national averages.
Southwest spokeswoman Marilee McInnis was noncommittal, saying she couldn’t say if moving to Boeing Field would mean lower fares because the competitive arena in 2009, when Southwest plans to begin service, isn’t predictable.
Gary Kelly, CEO of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, said he expects per-passenger airport costs at Boeing Field to be less than half of what the airline pays at Sea-Tac, allowing the airline to grow. Southwest estimates it would open service at Boeing Field in 2009, when its current lease with Sea-Tac runs out, with 60 flights, rather than its present 38 from Sea-Tac. Passenger service would later increase to 85 flights.
Also, the airline estimates its local economic impact would nearly double to $1.6 billion at Boeing Field, including payroll, taxes and tourism dollars, generating annual tourist income of $520 million, because lower fares encourage more flying. Before Southwest began service at Sea-Tac in 1994, there were 100,000 people flying annually from Seattle to Spokane. Southwest’s lower fares attracted 70,000 passengers the next year and other airlines that cut prices on that route carried nearly 175,000 people that year, according to Sea-Tac records.
Sims said Southwest’s terminal, offices, parking and aircraft ramp is planned for the east side of Boeing Field, along Airport Way South, adjacent to the recently renovated historic King County International Airport terminal. Its 21-acre site would displace about a dozen present tenants, he said.
Other points have also been raised by several observers of the current discussion of Southwest’s proposed move to Boeing Field. Sea-Tac’s recent expansion, for instance, will increase its passenger handling capacity from 28 million a year to 48 million, according to Port Commission President Bob Edwards. Despite that, the airport is expected to reach its growth limit by 2021, only 16 years away, making development of a secondary regional airport essential by that time. Present growth at Sea-Tac could mean saturation at the regional airfield is even closer than that, some airline experts have said.
Boeing Field doesn’t have the land area to become a second Sea-Tac, other observers note, but it could handle a few smaller airlines, taking pressure off the bigger airport, opening up space for attracting new airline tenants at Sea-Tac and providing more flights and lower airfares for consumers at Boeing Field through one to three competing airlines.