King County Executive Ron Sims shut the door on commercial air service at Boeing Field yesterday, turning down proposals from Southwest...
King County Executive Ron Sims shut the door on commercial air service at Boeing Field yesterday, turning down proposals from Southwest and Alaska Airlines to begin offering flights from there.
Citing the impact of noise and traffic, the use of taxpayer money and the possibility of extended litigation for choosing one airline over another, Sims said, “I am forced to reject both proposals from Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.”
His decision comes after enormous opposition to expanding Boeing Field from community groups, federal-government officials and the business community. Upset by high fees at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Southwest began negotiating with Sims’ office more than a year ago.
On Sept. 30, Alaska Airlines submitted a competing proposal, even though the airline also said it was adamantly opposed to Southwest’s move.
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Both carriers offered to build their own $130 million-plus terminals and parking garages so they eventually could offer 85 to 100 daily flights each. Combined, the two proposals would have required 16 gates and brought a projected 185 daily flights to Boeing Field, officially known as King County International Airport.
County officials said that would have exceeded the airport’s maximum capacity, which they calculated at 13 gates and 130 flights a day. The field now serves a mix of private, cargo and corporate planes, as well as provide private hangars.
Alaska and the Port of Seattle, which runs Sea-Tac, both applauded Sims’ decision.
Southwest said it had no immediate plans to alter service at Sea-Tac but might cut flights in the future, particularly if costs continue to rise. The low-fare carrier also said it was shelving plans to expand service to 85 flights from the current 38.
“We’re keeping our options open,” Chief Executive Gary Kelly said. “Our primary concern is … the threat that costs [at Sea-Tac] could go to obscenely high levels.”
Southwest said Sea-Tac is the most expensive of the 60 airports it serves and double its national average. Southwest pays annual landing fees and terminal rents that they expect will amount to about $10 per passenger this year.
Sea-Tac’s costs are slated to rise over the next few years, as the airport charges airlines more to cover the cost of remodeling the terminal and building a third runway, now budgeted at $4.2 billion. Sea-Tac planners envision possibly spending an additional $2 billion or so on airport improvements. Kelly said Southwest’s average profit is about $7 per passenger, so the cost difference is significant and makes expansion at Sea-Tac difficult.
After Southwest proposed moving to Boeing Field, the Port of Seattle reduced the fees at Sea-Tac.
Kelly said Sims’ decision wouldn’t affect Southwest’s plans to take delivery of a slew of new Boeing 737s. Southwest has unfilled orders for 72 737-700s on the books, including seven jets due for delivery by the end of 2005, 34 jets due in 2006 and 25 in 2007.
The new planes will be used at other airports, such as Pittsburgh and Fort Myers, Fla., where Southwest is expanding, Kelly said.
Sims, who is running for re-election, was initially enthusiastic about Southwest’s proposal. He viewed it as an opportunity to increase revenue at the airport, which is breaking even. A few years ago, Boeing Field faced so many financial problems that Sims urged the Port of Seattle to buy it.
Over the past few weeks, Sims tempered his enthusiasm for the proposal. He originally had planned to hold public hearings in November, with the aim of deciding whether to forward a proposed lease agreement to the Metropolitan King County Council.
That timeline was sped up by Alaska Air Group’s proposal Sept. 30, Sims said. He asked the King County Department of Transportation to look at how the new proposal would affect the Southwest plan and the tenants at Boeing Field. The two airlines were seeking the same piece of land, which is surrounded by long-term tenants.
“We had preliminary snapshots of what one proposal would do, and we thought that was in the workable zone,” said Harold Taniguchi, director of the transportation department.
But the two proposals would have required an environmental-impact study, and it would have cost the county $500,000, he told Sims on Monday. Taniguchi estimates the county already has spent about $200,000 on consulting costs.
Because the county was obligated by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules to fairly consider any proposal, Sims also feared that choosing one airline over the other would have exposed the county to legal action.
“It is not my place as county executive to choose between them,” Sims said.
County Councilman David Irons, R-Sammamish, who is running against Sims, charged that the county executive rejected the proposals to help his re-election campaign.
Irons said Sims made his decision based on the same information that was available months ago. “He’s the one who has created a firestorm over this. We saw the proposal and said it was a bad idea,” Irons said.
Sims said his decision had nothing to do with his campaign.
“There wasn’t support for this,” said councilman Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, who introduced legislation to block the county from spending money to study any airline proposal. “It wasn’t supported by the neighborhoods, it wasn’t supported by the business community, it wasn’t supported by the municipality.”
Some council members said the proposals deserved further study. But an array of community organizations, including the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, criticized it. The proposal also was opposed by the state’s congressional delegation and Alaska Republican Don Young, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives committee on transportation and infrastructure.
Seattle Times business reporter Alwyn Scott contributed to this report. Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or firstname.lastname@example.org.