New Airport Planned for West Central Washington

Sea-Tac International Airport will reach capacity in 2050, according to Washington state aviation officials.

Washington state aviation officials say Sea-Tac International Airport will reach capacity in 2050. [Shutterstock]

The year 2050 seems a long time away—unless you are using it as a metric for when a critical piece of infrastructure, such as an airline hub and city airport, will reach capacity.

That's what state aviation officials in Washington are saying will happen to Sea-Tac International Airport (KSEA), and they are actively looking for a location to build a new airport to help alleviate the growing congestion.

In 2019, the state legislature created the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC), whose task it is to provide recommendations to the legislature for how to solve the anticipated shortage of infrastructure for commercial air passenger service, air cargo, as well as the needs for general aviation. Commission members are appointed by the governor.

The CACC was tasked with coming up with a list of six possible locations for a new airport by January 1, 2021. This week, that list was further narrowed to three possible locations.

Commission Looks to South of Seattle

The CACC has identified two locations in Pierce County, south of Seattle. Pierce County is the Evergreen state's second-most populated county with approximately 876,764 residents.

The locations are identified as Pierce County Central, and Pierce County East. Both are in rural areas outside of the Urban Growth Boundary area, and undeveloped land known as greenfields.

Pierce County already has two civilian airports: non-towered Pierce County-Thun Field (KPLU), located south of Sea-Tac, and Tacoma Narrows (KTIW), a towered facility located to the southwest. Both are general aviation facilities and home to a busy flight training community.

In addition, the county has two large military airports: McChord Field Airport (KTCM) and Gray Army Airfield (KGRF). Both are Class D facilities located south of the city of Tacoma. They share a boundary and a name—as they are both known officially as Joint Base Lewis-McChord as they are adjacent to Fort Lewis.

A third possible location for a new airport is in Thurston County, which is further to the south, the location of Olympia, the state capitol, and the Olympia Regional Airport (KOLM). KOLM was established in the 1920s. It was then expanded for use during World War II. It currently has a tower as well as north-south and east-west runways. The airport went back to civilian use at the end of the war and today it is a towered reliever field to KSEA. In the past, the airport had scheduled commercial operations.

Opposition to Greenfields as Future Airport

The CACC is working with a consultant, pondering a list of considerations for analysis of the locations. This includes an analysis of environmental factors, transportation access, infrastructure concerns, airspace impact, and cost estimates for construction.

When developing its recommendations, the CACC considers a location's ability to accommodate projected aviation demand, the availability of willing airport sponsors, the site's proximity to population centers, and if members of the public favor or oppose the construction and operation of an airport.

Thus far, the CACC has been hearing opposition.

Six Pierce County Council members sent a letter to the CACC opposing the two locations in their home county, noting the negative impact on the county's infrastructure and the environmental impact construction would have on the population.

The letter states: "Both sites sit on top of the Central Pierce County Aquifer and are critical aquifer recharge areas. This aquifer is the main source of drinking water for many Pierce County communities." In addition, the letter notes the areas are outside the county urban growth area, stating, "The transportation, sewer, and water infrastructure necessary to support the contemplated airport simply does not exist and there are no plans to provide this infrastructure in the future."

The commission is actively seeking input from the community. At an October 22 meeting, residents spoke out against the proposals, citing the negative impact it would have on quality of life and expressing concerns that they would lose their homes to the airport construction.

The CACC has until June 2023 to make a final recommendation on the new airport location.

Per the CACC's webpage, "The decision to build or expand an airport requires agreement between local jurisdictions, the airport sponsor, funding partners, and regulatory agencies, which likely would include the [FAA], the State of Washington, and environmental agencies, among others. A central decision maker is the airport sponsor, which would be the lead agency in developing a new airport."

Other options

The CACC is also recommending adding capacity to Snohomish County Airport-Paine Field (KPAE), located north of Seattle, and potentially assisting other airports interested in pursuing commercial service.

In the meantime, Sea-Tac is preparing for expansion of its C Concourse, which will add four floors to the existing building to accommodate more passenger traffic. The work is expected to begin in 2023.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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