Sea-Tac International Airport: Part 4 -- Ascent and Dissent (1980-2008)

  • By Walt Crowley (with research by Alyssa Burrows, Daryl McClary, and Paula Becker)
  • Posted 6/24/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4234
Seattle-Tacoma (Sea-Tac) International Airport and its owner, the Port of Seattle, faced major challenges during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Foremost, their own successful investments and management, and the Puget Sound’s growing prominence as a business and cultural center on the Pacific Rim, fueled steady growth in the numbers of aircraft, passengers, and cargo shipments passing through the airport. With these increases, the impacts of noise on airport neighbors and along flight paths became complex and expensive problems. While hailed as a national leader in its noise-mitigation efforts, Sea-Tac also faced stiffening criticism from neighboring residents, cities, and institutions, which set the stage for continuing battles over its plan to add a third runway to maintain capacity in the twenty-first century. Then came the attacks of September 11, 2001, and an entirely new set of challenges and obligations.

Union Busting and Name Changes

The task of coping with a deregulated airline industry fell to Sea-Tac’s new director, Oris Dunham, in April 1981. By then, airport traffic had stabilized at around 200,000 aircraft operations (take-offs and landings) a year. The Port also signed a contract with Transiplex to build and manage a new $18 million air cargo center that would double the airport’s cargo-handling capacity.

On August 3, 1981, more than 11,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO) left their radar screens to strike against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) promptly fired the strikers and mobilized military controllers and other federal personnel to keep the airways open. Other airline unions, notably pilots and machinists, declined to honor PATCO picket lines, isolating the union and breaking its strike. The crisis precipitated a major reorganization of the nation’s air traffic control system and the investment of billions in new technology for advanced radars and automation.

President Reagan also reorganized the federal approach to airport noise issues by shifting lead responsibility from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Federal Aviation Administration. The Port pressed on with its own programs, commissioning a new study on noise remedies. By 1983, it had spent more than $38 million to purchase Sea-Tac area homes and properties adversely affected by aircraft noise, and it was far from done.

Los Angeles’ LAX airport hired away Oris Dunham in June 1983, and longtime Port engineer Vernon Lungren took charge of Sea-Tac. He was soon tested by a mini-controversy over the airport’s name.

On September 1, 1983, Washington’s six-term U.S. Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson died of a heart attack in his Everett home. Two weeks later, the Seattle Port Commission voted to rename Sea-Tac in his honor. Events mirrored those of 1944, when the Commission had proposed renaming the airport for recently deceased Boeing President Phil Johnson. In 1983, Tacoma protested promptly and vehemently. The Seattle Port Commission formally retreated on January 8, 1984.

Pass the Earplugs, Please

Also in 1984, the Port urged the FAA to address growing noise complaints from Seattle and Eastside neighborhoods sitting below Sea-Tac approach routes. The FAA had shifted these paths from over-water routes in the 1970s in response to growing Boeing Field and Sea-Tac traffic, and now outlying areas were beginning to complain along with airport neighbors. Experiments with alternative routes and “flight scattering” only brought more complaints from new areas.

Later route adjustments, combined with restrictions on nighttime operations by older, noisier aircraft and the introduction of quieter “Stage 3” jet engines on new aircraft, helped to muffle the problem. Thanks to U.S. Senator Slade Gorton, Sea-Tac’s innovative approach to “noise budgeting” was exempted from new federal laws which overrode local regulation of aircraft noise impacts.

Closer to the airport, the Port had by already demolished or moved more than 750 homes by 1984. It identified another 524 properties for relocation and another 3,000 warranting soundproofing, and up to 7,000 residences potentially in need of noise insulation subsidies. To meet these and other noise-related needs, the Port Commission approved a new $140 million on January 8, 1985, using funds collected from airlines and passengers, not taxpayers. The Port later undertook a new round of planning and community outreach that resulted in a pioneering “noise-mediation” program in 1990.

Also in 1985, the Commission authorized $40.8 million for major terminal improvements including new gates on Concourse D; the following year, United Air Lines doubled the size of its facilities at Sea-Tac. Meanwhile, annual aircraft operations climbed steadily to pass 315,000 in 1988, serving nearly 14.5 million passengers. The airport’s police force was also reorganized in the 1980s in the wake of the false conviction of a Seattle man for a rape/murder on airport property and embarrassing “sting operations” intended to discourage pickpockets and baggage thefts.

Pushing the Envelope

Vern Lundgren retired in 1988 and the Commission selected Andrea Riniker, the former director of the Washington State Department of Ecology (later director of the Port of Tacoma) to succeed him on April 4. Riniker faced a challenging agenda dominated by noise issues, technological change, and the strains caused by ever-rising passenger and cargo traffic.

The issue of burgeoning traffic sounded alarm bells when Port and FAA planners predicted that at current growth rates, Sea-Tac could reach its “maximum efficient capacity” of 380,000 annual aircraft operations by the end of the century -- just 12 years distant. This triggered a massive regional planning and community involvement process, dubbed “Flight Plan.” After eight years of study and debate and the exhaustion of numerous alternative approaches, the Puget Sound Regional Council, FAA, and Port concluded that the region’s near-term air service needs could be met only by the construction of a third “dependent” (bad-weather) runway at Sea-Tac. This did not prevent concerted opposition by some of Sea-Tac’s neighboring communities, which continued through 2003.

The Port did not wait for the Flight Plan process to run its course before addressing Sea-Tac’s immediate needs. Thanks to expanding Pacific Rim travel and trade, Sea-Tac handled nearly 18 million passengers in 1992. That year, Sea-Tac put the finishing touches on a $167 million “First Class Upgrade” program of terminal, concourse, garage, and other airport improvements. With additional federal funding, the Port also installed new ground-control radar and lighting to dramatically increase the capacity and safety of Sea-Tac’s runways and taxiways during low-visibility conditions, which prevail more than 40 percent of the average year.

Choppy Air

In 1993, airport director Andrea Riniker was elevated to Deputy Executive Director under Port CEO Mic Dinsmore and shifted to the Port’s new Pier 69 headquarters (she left to take charge of the Port of Tacoma in July 1997). Command of the aviation division was taken over by Gina Marie Lindsey.

On Lindsey’s watch, aircraft operations and passenger and cargo flows continued to increase, reaching and surpassing the airport’s maximum efficient capacity in 1995 -- five years ahead of predictions made in 1988. Following the final determinations in the regional Flight Plan process and exhaustive environmental impact analyses by both the Port and the FAA, the Port Commission approved a major Master Plan Update for Sea-Tac expansion and improvements on August 1, 1996.

Airport traffic maintained its steady ascent through 2000, peaking that year at 445,677 aircraft operations and 28,408,553 passengers. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, these levels dropped precipitously, and total operations fell to 364,735 in 2002 amid the national and regional recession and geopolitical tensions.

Security for both passengers and cargo at Sea-Tac was overhauled under new federal mandates and management. Traffic appears to have stabilized, and Sea-Tac ranked as the nation’s 16th busiest airport in 2002 with nearly 365,000 operations transporting more than 26 million passengers and nearly 375,000 metric tons of air cargo.

In 1995, the cities of Tukwila, Des Moines, and Normandy Park formed the Airport Communities Coalition to stop the runway. (They were later joined by Federal Way and the Highline School District.) The Coalition filed a lawsuit and subsequent appeals. In May 2004, the State Supreme Court largely cleared the way for construction to resume, and on August 19, 2004, the Airport Communities Coalition dropped litigation, after having spent $15 million over 10 years campaigning and litigating against the third runway.

Construction of the 8,500-foot runway resumed. The third runway was completed in 2008 at a cost of more than $1 billion, three times the original estimate.


Sources: The Seattle Times, March 7, 1981, p. B-11; Ibid., March 15, 1982, p. B-1; Ibid., October 27, 1982, p. E-13; Ibid., June 18, 1983, p. C-22; Ibid., September 15, 1983. p. A-1; Ibid.,  February 29, 1984, p. C-1; Ibid., November 14, 1984, p. C-9; Ibid., October 11, 1986, p. A-6; Ibid., October 9, 1987, p. E-1; Ibid., September 23, 1987, p. D-2; Ibid., February 10, 1988, p. B-2; Ibid., November 10, 1989, p. A-9; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 29, 1982, p. B-5; Ibid., November 28, 1983, p. C-1; Ibid., January 24, 1984, p. C-7; Ibid., January 9, 1985; p. D-1; Ibid., November 12, 1985, p. D-2; Ibid., March 28, 1986, p. D-2; Ibid., February 25, 1988, p. B-2; Ibid., August 23, 1989, p. B-4; Ibid., March 30, 1990, p. A-1; Ibid., April 6, 1990, p. B-1; Ibid., April 24, 1990, p. B-1; Ibid., October 18, 1990, p. B-1; Ibid., March 22, 1991, p. B-5; Ibid., February 21, 1991, p. B-2; Port of Seattle Annual Reports, 1980-2001; Port of Seattle Tradelines Magazine, Winter 1991, p. 15; Summer 1992, p. 5; Winter 1992, p. 14; Port of Seattle website accessed June 2003 (www.portseattle.org).
Note: This essay was updated on September 10, 2003, again on August 30, 2004, and again on November 20, 2008.

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