A commercial plane touched its tires to the pavement for the first time Thursday at SeaTac airport's newly built third runway.

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It took only seconds for a brand-new Alaska Airlines 737 jet to touch its tires to the pavement, travel roughly 2,000 feet, and take off again. But the touch-and-go landing at 1:01 p.m. Thursday represented a major milestone in the checkered history of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s third runway.

It was the first time a commercial plane touched rubber to road on the runway that’s been a generation in the making, cost a shade over $1 billion and is meant to speed up the arrival of incoming planes — even though it won’t help departing flights get in the air any faster.

A series of test landings were held Thursday — three on autopilot, when the plane essentially landed itself, and three with the pilot controlling the plane’s touchdown — as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s certification process for the new runway.

The purpose was to ensure that the plane’s instruments were properly communicating with instruments embedded in the runway and with folks in the air traffic control tower, said Port of Seattle spokesman Perry Cooper. He couldn’t say immediately after the landings whether they’d gone as planned because the test results still needed to be analyzed.

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Similar tests will be done in a couple of weeks with a larger, wider aircraft. The new runway is scheduled to open Nov. 20. The airport’s two other runways are too close together to allow airplanes to land on both during times of low-visibility — weather conditions that exist 44 percent of the time in Seattle, Cooper said.

The hope is that the third runway can shave delays — which can add up to as much as an extra 90 minutes in the air for pilots and passengers — down to 15 minutes, he said.

“It’s not designed for consistent landings,” Cooper said. “It’s not to be a takeoff runway. It’s designed for landings in low visibility.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since airport officials first raised the idea of adding a third runway. The project proved to be hugely controversial: Construction was delayed by a decade because at least 20 lawsuits were filed against the project, mostly related to environmental issues. The Port, which relocated a creek, filled in 15 acres of wetlands and used 16 million cubic yards of fill dirt in building the 8,500-foot-long runway, was required to mitigate a slew of environmental impacts.

But the controversy does not appear to be over just yet, since the runway was at the heart of a scathing state audit that earlier this year led the U.S. Justice Department to a launch a federal probe into how the Port awarded construction contracts.

Chris Gower, a longtime opponent of the runway project, said, “once it starts making noise,” the runway will irrevocably change the lives of those who live nearby.

“The questions that remain today are: Does the environmental mitigation work? That’s the big shoe that’s yet to drop,” Gower said. “Was fraud committed in building the third runway? And, in a recession, with Alaska Airlines cutting routes and laying off pilots, was a third runway even needed?”

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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