We Desperately Need a New Airport: New Effort Seems Stymied from the Start


Even as Seattle-Tacoma International Airport soars back toward record passenger volumes, the state’s rebooted effort to solve the region’s looming air-transportation crisis is getting a slow start out of the gate.

The governor has yet to appoint anyone to the new Commercial Aviation Work Group (CAWG), a 19-member body authorized by the Legislature last session to study the state’s aviation needs.  The new group replaces the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC), charged by the Legislature in 2019 to recommend a site for a new airport. That effort predictably triggered a firestorm when it identified three potential new airport sites in Pierce and Thurston counties, and the earlier commission recently threw in the towel.

The new CAWG has a less specific, less toxic mandate: “to provide a comprehensive investigation of airport capacity in the state and the best way to address aviation needs in the context of overall state transportation needs in the next 20 years using independent verifiable data.”  

But if the original group was given too ambitious a goal, concerns are emerging that the new panel lacks the resources and direction to come up with answers to the urgent questions around regional airport capacity, notably how to deal with SeaTac’s being overwhelmed with users.  

The new legislation sets no criteria, work plan, or deadlines for delivering an investigation of the state’s aviation needs, other than an interim report next summer.  About $2 million has been set aside for its work through 2025.

And like the previous legislation, the new law essentially prohibits study of sites near Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Pierce County.  Further, Gov. Jay Inslee, while approving creation of the new panel, vetoed a lengthy section that specified criteria for evaluating new airport sites and community outreach.

The outgoing chair of the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission is pessimistic about the new group’s direction.  “My candid concern about the work group is that their only requirement is to make an annual report to the Legislature.  They don’t have a deliverable, they don’t have a specific mandate, they don’t have the authority to make any decisions,’’ lamented  Warren Hendrickson, Olympia Airport senior manager and a long-time aviation professional, at a recent Port of Seattle commission briefing.   

The Seattle port commissioners, who run Sea-Tac but so far have stayed on the sidelines in the debate about a new airport site, now seem poised to take a more active role in finding solutions. The state’s airports were strong advocates of the transportation study effort, citing the jobs and economic activity generated by airports.  

“It is going to require leadership at the executive level,” said Commissioner Toshiko Hasegawa.  “We should have gotten started 10 years ago if we were truly going to meet the needs of… our projected growth and demand.”

Ticketing at Sea-Tac Airport, 10 November 2015

The debate comes against the backdrop of a nationwide explosion of travel demand in the aftermath of the pandemic.  As every traveler knows, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is straining to keep up. Year-to-date passenger volume is up 13.7 percent compared to 2022 and the airport had its busiest day ever on July 24.

Future projections are even more daunting. Demand for take-offs and landings in the region is projected to DOUBLE by 2050 from over 400,000 to more than 800,000 per year. This growth is expected to produce a regional gap in service by 2050 of about 52 million annual passengers – equal to all the passengers served at Sea-Tac in 2019. 

Paine Field’s terminal in Snohomish County, which today can handle about 1 million passengers, can expand but at the most could handle only about 4 million passengers a year, only a fraction of the capacity needed in the future.  

If the collapse of the CACC proved anything, it is that there is no statewide consensus about the state’s role in air transportation. Any new “greenfield’’ site in Western Washington will face tremendous community push-back, and many environmentalists oppose any airport expansion as a further climate threat. 

Yet failure to add air capacity risks more air congestion, higher ticket prices, fewer travel choices, and lost economic opportunities.

At the Port meeting, commissioners appeared to share Hendrickson’s frustration. 

“I am very disappointed this whole thing is going back to the drawing board,’’ said Commissioner Hamdi Mohamed. Residents near Sea-Tac Airport will bear the brunt of more air traffic if new capacity is not provided, she said. “There’s clearly a consequence if there’s no action.”

The Port is spending billions on improvements within the existing main terminal, but its plans to build a new terminal to the north and add 19 new gates have been pushed out from 2027 to 2032. Beyond that, the airport runs out of space.  The Port Commission has yet to approve those expansion plans, which are still undergoing environmental review.

Commissioners echoed a frequent criticism of the previous Coordinating Commission’s work, namely that the state must do a better job engaging with the public directly, as well as looking  at new technologies and alternatives, rather than building new airport facilities alone. 

Hasegawa favored exploration of one such alternative, high-speed rail connecting Vancouver/Seattle/Portland. The state’s congressional Democrats are seeking $200 million in federal aid to study the concept. Rail can provide valuable options for relatively short distances. However, it’s not a complete solution to the capacity short-fall.

The port commissioners also appeared ready to wade into the controversy over the potential joint use of Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) in Pierce County as both a military and commercial airport. The 2019 state legislation specifically ruled out any consideration of the military base – or any new site in King County – for a new commercial airport. 

There is also near-unanimous Pierce County opposition to any change at the military base or new airport construction. Opponents include tribes, the Pierce County Council, the state’s federal delegation, Air Force and Army leaders, as well as the Port of Tacoma, Seattle’s partner in the Northwest Seaport Alliance.

Even so, in their final report, some CACC members advocated moving the military air operations to Eastern Washington and converting the military airfield to commercial use.

Commissioner Fred Felleman said JBLM is where the region’s growth is headed, has the right facilities, is close to I-5 and has space to expand.  JBLM “is the only place that makes sense,’’ he said. Hasegawa urged more discussions with federal leaders “so that JBLM can be an active part of the conversation.”

Alaska Airlines departs Sea-Tac, 25 July 2019.

Port Commission President Sam Cho says the state needs to move with greater urgency, but with open minds about potential locations for new facilities – including Eastern Washington – that could be connected by rail, and also inspecting new technology opportunities. The state may find a willing partner in the federal government, which has set aside billions for infrastructure investment.

“This is a golden opportunity for us, if you look at it from a 10-thousand-foot perspective, and this political BS is really getting in the way,’’ he said. 

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma and Transportation Committee chair, calls the new legislation a compromise, if an imperfect one, among the many competing issues around the air-transportation controversy.  He believes the work must first focus on assessing transportation needs before landing on specific sites.

Fey said the JBLM controversy risked stalling the entire study effort. The base is the county’s largest employer.  The aviation capacity effort “is going to be hard enough without throwing that into the mix,” he warned.

The 2019 commission itself was criticized as weighted in favor of aviation interests, wasn’t funded sufficiently, and was hampered by the pandemic.  Fey’s bill broadens the membership to include more community representatives and other stakeholders. 

He admits surprise at Inslee’s veto of the section dealing with site selection and suggests the Legislature may return to the issue next session. “I get that people feel we are going slow. They are concerned about that. But work like this needs to be done well,’’ he cautioned. His goal is to find consensus on how air transportation fits into a broader assessment of the state’s mobility needs, before choosing airport sites.

With understatement, Fey said, “this will be a very difficult decision at some point in the future.”


Mike Merritt
Mike Merritt
Mike Merritt is a former writer and editor for local newspapers. He recently retired as senior executive policy advisor for the Port of Seattle.


    • Phil: Boeing Field would beruled out because of airspace conflicts with SeaTac. I think the best solution is to move McChord Air Base to Eastern Washington, where the jobs are needed, and to convert McChord to a commercial airport. Our two powerful senators would be needed to pressure for this change and come up with the funding. The backup plan would be to get more usage out of SeaTac, Payne Field, and Boeing, and maybe to pressure Delta and Alaska to minimize SeaTac as a hub.

      • As an actual resident of Piece County…. just no. We like out military base and all the jobs that go with it. I think you didn’t get the message from the Governor… McChord is 100% off limits. The voters of Pierce Country would never in million years go for this lopsided airport-for-military base trade you want.

        Tear up someplace in King County of you want a new airport. Leave us alone down here, thank you very much.

      • The fact that they are being sued for the increased risk of cancer in the flightline area might be an issue with picking a new new site. I believe a 5 mile radius at this point.

  1. We desperately need to find alternatives to more airplane traffic. SeaTac is being sued now for its current noise and particulate pollution impacts.* Adding more traffic makes no sense from the perspective of the many suffering greatly from current traffic.

    I live in the north end and the noise from the frequent stream of planes is obnoxious enough; I can’t imagine the impacts for those who live near SeaTac or under the flight path on Beacon Hill. Many of whom happen to be less wealthy and less white. Where is the consideration for them?

    The assumption that ever more economic growth is good is a recipe for a worse outcome. Making huge investments on more polluting activities based on projections of “demand” in 2050 is absurd. We desperately need to change the narrative.

    * See the class action litigation: Codoni v. Port of Seattle, U.S.D.Ct. W.D.Wa., No. 2:23-cv-00795 JNW (https://www.hbsslaw.com/cases/seattle-tacoma-international-airport-sea-tac-pollution)

  2. The single biggest flaw in all this new airport discussion is the exclusive focus on locating a new major airport west of the Cascades. There are no really good longterm options there, except perhaps in Lewis County.

    By far the best long-term opportunity, one that would serve the entire state of Washington, is at Moses Lake in Grant County. A major airstrip is built and operating there. It is a veritable certainty that this will not be considered. We lack the imagination and the political will to embrace such a bold yet highly promising opportunity.

    Moses Lake offers the chance to expand our economy and social needs long term. There exists now abundant land and cheap electricity. Also, the proven Swedish electrified high speed X-train technology operates to cross a curvaceous high mountain range. It could be brought here to cross the Cascades. We could connect the Seattle Metropolitan area witty Moses Lake and vicinity in less than an hour.

    But, we will fight, waste time and money trying to jam such a major new infrastructure investment into an already crowded and over built area. Some wag will propose we ask AI to solve our problem. Wanna a bet?

    It’s too bad we don’t have a Bill Allen (Boeing) or a Jim Ellis (Forward Thrust) to show us the way.

  3. This is all so dumb. And all so obvious. We have an airport and most of us want to fly somewhere because of the convenience of flying.

    The Puget Sound basin is small. There is no room for a new airport built from scratch, never mind the lawsuits, inevitable and endless from those infringed and aggrieved.

    Moses Lake? Yakima? Quixotic high speed rail? Gimme a break. Never happen. Problems of timing, cost overruns, inconvenience, cost, make the whole idea ludicrous.

    Reduce the Alaska and Delta hubs? This is crazy. Those hubs are here because people want to fly point-to-point, nonstop, when they want to fly, no connections, fewer lost bags, fewer delays and missed connections.

    Only one solution can ever work: Max out SEA. Max out Paine Field. Pressure our twice-in-a-lifetime Senatorial delegation to open up McChord to commercial traffic as is already done in Honolulu.

    It’s just real estate.

    • I’m with you, Gordon. Western Washington doesn’t have enough space for a big new airport, pinched as it is between mountains and Sound.

      Either no space or no community willing to tolerate the intrusion. I was shocked to see that lovely Skagit County was actually on the list of possibles at one point.

      Paine Field could take some of the regional service out of SeaTac. It would be far more convenient to the burgeoning population from Seattle north to the Canadian border. Expanded service also from Bellingham’s airport? Same, perhaps for McChord, serving communities to the south.

      Regional flights out of the already-substantial Moses Lake airport, with 5 runways, could provide more convenient service to Eastern Washington as well.

  4. I’m more than willing to consider Eastern Washington for the next airport expansion, or build from scratch new facilities. Does make sense, considering the growth there.

    I’m damned if I’m going to consider building train tracks across our spectacularly beautiful Cascade mountain range. Just to accommodate people who choose to fly to Spokane or Medical Lake, instead of Puget Sound. Nope and nope — guarantee you that will never fly.

    I enjoy this discussion though —

  5. Maybe there’s a silver lining. As Toby points out, growth has had its down side for the region, to say the least, and here’s a resource limit that could put at least a little damper on it. There’s never going to be a 2nd airport, reading this article should convince anyone of that. Let it be a beginning to planning for a different, more responsible kind of success.

    • Thanks Donn: Someone else willing to say the taboo word in a negative light. Addiction to growth is as strong as any drug.

      • Dream on. We’re not addicted to growth. Growth is addicted to us. Every major air hub in the country, after the pandemic lull, is growing. Air travel is our national mass transportation system.

        There won’t be any high speed rail. Where will the tracks run in Seattle? How much will it cost? How long will it take? What could possibly go wrong?

        In the words of Brian Coughlan, “Get real.”

        • Read the article, and tell me how it’s going to happen. If air traffic can’t grow, it won’t. Then what?

          I’ve been saying Washington should plan for the climate refugium epoch by building up Bellingham. It already has an airport right on I5, maybe that’s where the big improved airport should go.

        • I could say the same (“Get real.”): If you don’t acknowledge that there are limits to growth for every element of the biosphere (e.g., us) then you don’t understand the concept of carrying capacity or the implications of continuing with our political-economic “business as usual.” Everything from a petri dish to the planet Earth has a limited carrying capacity.

          The specific carrying capacity of Earth for humans depends on a few key factors, such as how much resources we need to survive (which ranges from a basic minimum to “consuming a lot” such as in glutinous U.S.), and how much we’re willing to share the Earth with other parts of the biosphere—apparently not much in light of the huge reduction in the non-human biosphere in the past century.

          Almost every published credible analysis indicate that at current levels of consumption we are well beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity. Many argue that at 8 or 10 billion, we are beyond the carrying capacity of the planet for any reasonable standard of living for everyone.

          I’m happy to engage on the details of the above (“sustainability”). However, this is probably not place for such a dialogue. I’ll give you one citation that I believe speaks to a fundamental aspect of the situation: the relationship between civilizations overshooting carrying capacity and having huge inequities in the distribution of wealth and access to “quality of life.” It’s called the HANDY study and its DOI is 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2014.02.014

          Regarding the relationship of the foregoing to the question of the need for another airport in Seattle/King County/Western Washington: IMO until the consequences of ignoring the limits of our economic activities actually start impinging on our ability keep building such things, I don’t think we’ll stop doing so. We are apparently too stupid as a species.

          OTOH, as Donn implies it’s possible there’s enough opposition to the “need” for more capacity nearby (or at least opposition to the impacts) we’ll actually have to start thinking about alternatives that do not involve facilitating continued growth in the face of the increasingly obvious negative impacts of doing so.

  6. The electrified Swedish Xtrain takes grades and sharp curves at 150 mph. The distance to Seattle is insignificant. Ever flown into, out of Dulles?

    Responsible alternative: try bicycles.

    • I have flown into Dulles. I fly frequently. And I accept that there are some areas I can’t fly into or take a train through…and our sacred mountains should be one of them… Sam, what if we just stop thinking that we need to build infrastructure, everywhere? The point I am trying to make is that there are other considerations, e.g., Native American rights to the land they view as sacred, preserving the forests, and other environmental considerations. I have no doubt the Swedish trains run rapidly and well.

  7. No, no and no. No new western WA Airport. Eastern WA has expressed interest so stop beating your head on the wall and go talk to Moses Lake. No Lewis County either.. I live down here and we don’t want the noise or pollution or the traffic. NO Seattle to Portland train either, people were already killed with a high speed train debacle. Train tracks already run across the Csscades.. give that a thought and it would be a short trip to and from.

    • ‘Train tracks already run across the Cascades.. ” Yes, and they’re aging and used for freight and/or Amtrak travel.I don’t see freight transporters yielding gracefully to high speed rail conversion, if that is even possible.
      I like reading other points of view, though.
      And I’m liking Donn’s suggestion about building a major airport hub in Bellingham.

  8. Well, if you happen to miss your connection at Moses Lake International you can always layover at the Four Seasons Soap Lake.

  9. If we’re going to build a new airport here, build it in Snohomish County, in a location besides Paine Field. That saves Everett and Skagit County-based travelers the headache of slogging through Seattle traffic to catch a flight, something Pierce County travelers don’t face.

    Trains are a separate story, but there’s no question high-speed rail or even more frequent service to Vancouver/Portland, and even across the mountains to Spokane, are imperative to alleviating airport congestion and pollution output.

  10. One aspect of this debate is how a new airport would alter the economic geography of the region. That’s why I favor McChord as a way of focusing growth on the Olympia-Tacoma axis, relieving King County from the growth pressures and the higher costs that come from “too much money chasing too little land.”

  11. Everyone wants to fly but no one wants an airport in their community. SeaTac airport sucks. It’s a nasty, polluting cancer on south King County. It damages the environment and screws taxpayers, who are required to pay taxes to support the Port of Seattle, aka, the PoS, one of the largest polluters in the State of Washington. SeaTac airport is responsible for over six million tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year. That’s as much as a large, coal burning power plant. Anyone who wants to expand air travel and put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is either sociopathic or ignorant.
    The supposed economic benefits of having an airport in your community are also B.S. King County has SeaTac airport and also has decaying infrastructure, a chronic homelessness problem, rising crime and the highest taxes in the state. SeaTac airport is a good deal for the shareholders of Alaska Airlines, and for the lazy, do-nothing hacks at the PoS and corrupt King County politicians, it’s a crap deal for anyone else.

    • I’m pretty much on the same page, but do wonder if there’s a way to use Moses Lake for connecting flights for airlines that have decided to route a lot of multi-legged international flights through SeaTac.

      My questions are 1) How much of this projected future demand is from local (and to a lesser extent tourist) folks who actually need to fly in and out of the Puget Sound area vs 2) How much is driven by being a hub of convenience for airlines that use SeaTac as a launching pad to other destinations.

      That being said, effective train service to Moses Lake that goes almost 150 miles over a major mountain range is a total pipe dream as a practical matter, so let’s don’t piss away one thin dime studying that to put off hard local decisions.


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