• Matt Hays

Where Are the Airport Winds Blowing?

Will our region build a second major commercial airport, on a Sea-Tac scale? The State-appointed Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC) is studying just that. Their mandate is a new airport up and running by 2040.

That's going to be a real challenge! I'd like to share some ideas about where we might be headed.

Setting the Stage

The CACC's process is based on a prediction that passenger traffic might double by 2050. Sea-Tac totaled nearly 52,000,000 passengers (to and from) in 2019 and Paine Field in Everett exceeded 1,000,000. Both are expected to expand their capacities, but only a fraction of the needed amount. The new airport would take the majority of the slack.

The CACC has studied six potential sites, all with existing airfields—Paine, Arlington, Bremerton, Gig Harbor, Shelton, and Toledo (Lewis County). As of February their opinion was that only Paine is suitable for commercial service, and even it can only handle 4,500,000 passengers. They acknowledge a need to look at more options including greenfields.

Overlapping this process, a periodic WSDOT Aviation System Review ending in 2023 is both augmenting and informing the CACC analysis. They're also looking at greenfield sites.

The CACC acknowledges that 2040 is aggressive, and 2050 may be more realistic. They also note that in that timeframe we might have new transportation technologies at scale, affecting demand for traditional airports.

Let's assume the predictions are right, and we need twice the passenger capacity via technology similar to today. Now what?

A Second Airport...or Two?

The mission of a second Sea-Tac is daunting for any location. Sea-Tac is considered tiny at 3.9 square miles, every inch of which is needed because it has two main runways set far apart for simultaneous instrument-only landings. A single new airport site would be even bigger, to say nothing of hotel row, transportation infrastructure, and flight paths. No wonder none of the six sites seem appropriate!

I suspect we'll look at dividing the load between TWO sites, likely at existing airfields. These could have single runways, and target perhaps 10,000,000 to 20,000,000 annual passengers each. That's well below San Diego's count with its single runway.

These would involve big challenges such as buying out tenants and rebuilding or expanding runways and everything else, but each should be significantly easier, faster, and cheaper than the single big option. They might even be cheaper in combination due to reusing current infrastructure. Every physical challenge would scale down. We could open one in the near term and the second later as projections warranted.

The Bay Area is set up like this with San Francisco augmented by Oakland and San Jose. Sea-Tac would remain the main global airport like San Francisco while the others would pick up much of the short-to-mid-distance service.

Pushing Through the Challenges

The CACC has avoided stepping on toes. They might be TOO nice.

The six locations were picked because expanding a current airport seemed more doable given the 2040 target. They crossed five of the six off the list due to local leaders' wishes, physical challenges, and shared priorities with cargo and general aviation. Paine's limited growth seems to assume very little displacement of existing users.

They didn't consider KCIA, Renton, or JBLM. All are extremely tight sites with current users and adjacencies. Lewis and McChord probably aren't going anywhere, and neither is Boeing (we hope). Renton's runway is too short, and we're not likely to pave Downtown Renton or Lake Washington. But airlines targeted KCIA for commercial service not that long ago.

What will we find when greenfield options are made public, with the expansive impacts they would entail? The public eruption might rival the Beast Quake and Krakatoa put together. Suddenly existing airports might seem like easier pickings.

I suspect the prevailing mindset about a few sites will switch from "nope" to "maybe, if" once the options are on the table.

Varied Opportunities for A/E/C/RE Firms

A multi-airport option might result in significant work in the not-too-distant future, at least on the design side and relocating existing uses.

An all-new airport would take longer to start but become a project of the century. Even the offsite infrastructure would be huge.

And every option will involve significant construction at Sea-Tac, and likely Paine as well.

So buckle up.

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