Ticket prices at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport could rise and expansion could be scaled back if Southwest Airlines moves its operations...

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Ticket prices at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport could rise and expansion could be scaled back if Southwest Airlines moves its operations to Boeing Field, the Port of Seattle said yesterday.

Southwest, a low-fare airline, said it sees potentially “dramatic” costs savings by moving to the smaller, county-run airport and avoiding rising fees at Sea-Tac, the regional hub.

Talks on making the shift became public this week. A move, if approved, would not happen for at least three or four years.

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Landing Southwest would help stabilize finances at Boeing Field, which lost money in 2003 and is expected to be in the red again this year.

But it would punch a hole in Sea-Tac’s finances just as the airport, in 2009, completes a 10-year, $4.2 billion expansion. Southwest paid about $8.4 million in airport fees last year, or about 6 percent of the total.

Southwest’s departure would not threaten construction of the third runway, said Mark Reis, managing director of Sea-Tac airport.

However, it could force Sea-Tac to scale back other parts of its expansion such as parking, restrooms and other facilities, Reis said.

It also could increase the costs for airlines still at Sea-Tac, something airlines might pass on to customers, he said.

“You have a carrier who voted in favor of the investments in Sea-Tac and now they’re going to walk away from that and force the other carriers remaining to pay,” Reis said.

“It would be very noticeable to the other carriers,” he added. “It would no doubt require them to raise their airfares to compensate.”

Airlines are facing a big jump in costs at Sea-Tac. Two years ago, the port estimated the average fee that airlines pay per passenger would rise to $25 on average when the new facilities open in 2009. That would make it among the most expensive in the nation. Last year, airlines paid about $10.26, compared to about $4 in the mid-1990s.

The Port has since brought down its estimate of the future cost. It now projects charging about $15.50 per passenger in 2009, after it sells some new bonds and restructures its debt in coming days, Reis said.

But Southwest said yesterday that cost was still “prohibitive” for a low-cost carrier.

“Fifteen dollars is astronomically higher than what we pay at any of our other stations,” said Southwest spokeswoman Marilee McInnis.

She said the airline wouldn’t pull out of the region if it couldn’t move to Boeing Field, but “we could not grow.”

Boeing Field, operated by King County, now serves mostly cargo and private planes.

The move, if it happened, would take at least three to four years, said McInnis and Harold Taniguchi, King County Department of Transportation director.

Income from Southwest might not be enough to make Boeing Field profitable, Taniguchi said, but would help “stabilize” its finances. The county airfield went from a loss of $630,000 in 2003 to a profit of $174,000 last year, and is projected to lose $52,000 in 2005.

It is too early to say what fees Southwest would be charged at Boeing Field, he said.

The airport’s costs would likely go up if a commercial passenger airline begins operating there.

Southwest’s savings from the move would be “dramatic,” said McInnis, but she had no figures. Southwest is studying the savings of the move against the costs of a terminal and parking facilities at Boeing Field.

Southwest isn’t ready to leave Sea-Tac, McInnis said.

“We’re still working with Sea-Tac to get our costs down,” she said. “We are simply right now looking at our other alternatives … because the costs are prohibitive at Sea-Tac.”

She said raising ticket prices wasn’t an option: “You can’t be a low-fare carrier if you raise your ticket prices.”

Other airlines were reluctant to predict how a shift by Southwest would affect them.

“If a major carrier was to leave any airport that we were functioning at, that is something we would have to look at,” said Amanda Tobin, spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines. “The implications could be significant.”

But, she added, “I just can’t speculate on what that would do to our costs or ticket prices.”

Alwyn Scott: 206-464-3329 or ascott@seattletimes.com