The airport is essential to the region’s companies, tourist industry, logistics and ability to capitalize on our Pacific Rim location. Abundant flights to and from Silicon Valley and San Francisco are important to the tech sector.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was the fastest-growing major airport in the United States last year, continuing a red-hot streak that matches the economy of the region it serves.
Consider that during 2014-2015, Sea-Tac saw an additional 7 million passengers, matching the previous decade’s increase. A total of 42 million passengers used the airport last year. By 2034, that number could reach 66 million.
No wonder that a top priority for commissioners and officials at the Port of Seattle, which runs the airport, is examining how it must expand to accommodate growth and keep up with the competition.
The Port is working on a Sustainable Airport Master Plan to guide the work in intervals of five, 10 and 20 years. Two decades for complex infrastructure can pass very quickly for the unprepared.
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First, alternatives must be examined and vetted. Then reviews, community meetings and buy-in from airlines and other government entities would be required before any construction begins. Noise will be a big issue for surrounding communities.
While the planning continues, Sea-Tac aims to work within the existing three runways. One challenge for the airport is limited land.
Beyond that, planners are examining options for terminal expansion — as many as 35 more gates might be added to today’s 88. Also, Sea-Tac has only 11 gates capable of handling international widebody flights (the jets, not my physique), while it is forecast to need 16 more.
The cost could be in the billions, depending on the alternatives chosen. One ballpark forecast was $10 billion.
Planning is hitting a high gear as a new managing director joins the airport.
Lance Lyttle, who held executive positions for airports in Atlanta and Houston, took over this year for the retiring Mark Reis.
Stakes are high. The airport is a heavyweight economic engine in its own right. It is also essential to the region’s companies, tourist industry, logistics and ability to capitalize on our Pacific Rim location.
Abundant flights to and from Silicon Valley and San Francisco are important to the tech sector.
Sea-Tac is critical to that rarest of jewels in an age of a handful of huge carriers, a hometown airline, Alaska.
And nobody can shut down daily airport operations to allow for a neat, calm rebuilding — unless the construction is at an entirely new site, as has happened only twice with major airports (Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver) since the 1970s.
So for Sea-Tac, it’s chew gum, walk, takeoff and land, plan and build.
Nor is the competition inert.
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) has been undergoing a massive modernization for several years. Delta Air Lines has signed a letter of intent with the city to expand there. Also, an ambitious people mover would connect terminals, rail and transit links, and a consolidated rental-car facility.
New York’s three airports, Chicago’s O’Hare, Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth, among others, are spending billions on refurbishing and expanding.
Generally, airports use airline fees, passenger charges and the sale of bonds connected to passenger traffic to finance such work.
It’s a rare example of public infrastructure in America that consistently works, thanks to dedicated revenue streams and federal backing.
One of the region’s biggest needs in competing against world cities is to build a major international air hub.
Delta might create one. Yet the airport must achieve this without unfairly asking Alaska Airlines and its passengers to subsidize the competition.
On a more granular, human scale, much of Sea-Tac seems shabby compared to the big airports I am most familiar with: Phoenix, Denver and Charlotte. The last time I went through Sea-Tac, an elevator on the north side of the terminal had been out for what seemed like two years.
Light rail is a ridiculously long walk, whereas at Phoenix Sky Harbor a sky train conveniently whisks passengers from terminals to the light-rail station.
I’m not the only one.
On Facebook last week, Port Commissioner John Creighton wrote, “I have been chagrined for years at the lack of cleanliness of the bathrooms and common areas at Sea-Tac Airport, and our seeming inability as a 24-hour facility to stay ahead of the issue.”
He added, “Yesterday, our new aviation director, Lance Lyttle, before I even had a chance to discuss the issue with him, showed me over 20 photos he had taken of various bathrooms and corridors at the airport. He expressed his surprise, stated that it was unacceptable and pledged that he will insist things get better on his watch. I like this guy already!”
Most American airports come up short compared to overseas competitors.
Not one U.S. airport made the top 25 in Skytrax’s rankings of the best world airports, in which Singapore was in the lead.
Cincinnati, abandoned as a hub by Delta, came in at No. 30, the best in the states. Sea-Tac ranked No. 54. Vancouver, B.C., was No. 11.
So while Bertha moves a few feet and light rail to the Eastside seems far in the future, this is a major regional infrastructure project to watch.
The public will have many opportunities to weigh in, and no doubt will do so.