Opposition Growing to Plans For New Sea-Tac Reliever Airport

Three possible site locations are under consideration as state officials predict the airport will max out its capacity by 2050.

Pierce County, Washington already has busy airspace, as seen taking off from Pierce County-Thun Field (KPLU). Pilots must be mindful of a U.S. Air Force base to the west and the Class Delta that belongs to Tacoma Narrows Airport (KTIW). [Credit: Meg Godlewski]

A proposal to build a 3,000-acre airport to accommodate airline and cargo traffic south of Seattle continues to run into across-the-board opposition. 

In October, the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC) announced they were studying three locations—known as greenfields—for the construction of a new airport to handle passengers  and cargo. The project, however, sparked opposition, which has been getting larger and louder ever since.

Pop Up Surprise

The CACC, which was formed in 2019, consists of governor-appointed members. The organization began the airport location search with 19 sites, winnowing the list down to three by 2022, according to Warren Hendrickson, chairman of the CACC.

"It wasn't until the commission reduced the list of greenfields for three and announced that there would be further study that we got the public's attention," Hendrickson said. "In three years, we only had 700 people sign up for direct distribution for CACC activities on the WSDOT (Washington State Department of Transportation) website. Within three weeks of announcing there were three greenfields under consideration, a Facebook group popped up and now they have 4,200 members.

"Most people are getting their information about this issue from social media, whether it is accurate or not," he said.

Hendrickson has worked in the aviation industry for about 50 years, as a professional pilot, then as an airport planner, and a member of several state organizations tasked with making sure the aviation infrastructure keeps pace with growing passenger and cargo needs.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (KSEA) located in King County is running out of capacity.

State officials say the airport will reach capacity by 2050, handling 27 million passengers and 800,000 tons of cargo a year. The state is considering options to increase capacity, including building a new airport.

Three Potential Locations

There are rules to site selection, noted Hendrickson. The alternate sites could not be in King County and they could not impact the operations of established military bases.

Two greenfields are 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 predominantly rural residential areas outside the Urban Growth Boundary area and undeveloped land with farms, forests, and wetland areas, dotted with neighborhoods and small businesses.

Some residents in these areas, however, are letting state officials know they do not want an airport built in their neighborhoods, citing increased pollution, noise, and displacement of homes and businesses. Among the arguments is that the potential locations in question are over an aquifer that supplies drinking water for most of Pierce County.

The third proposed location is in Thurston County near Olympia, which is the state capital and already has a municipal airport, Olympia Regional Airport (KOLM). The Olympia airport is a towered facility designated as a reliever for Sea-Tac. It was built in the 1920s, expanded during World War II, then returned to the municipality after the war. Today it is home to several flight schools, charter services, and state aircraft operations.

Existing Airport Expansion

In considering how best to expand capacity in the region, one common suggestion is to expand operations at the Olympia airport and at Pierce County-Thun Field (KPLU), located south of Sea-Tac, as well as Tacoma Narrows (KTIW), a towered facility located to the southwest. Both are general aviation facilities and are home to a busy flight training community. 

Developing these general aviation airports to handle cargo and commercial carrier traffic is not an option, according to Hendrickson, who said they don't have the space to handle it.

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 Tacoma. They share a boundary and a name—both known officially as Joint Base Lewis-McChord as they are adjacent to Fort Lewis.

Last month the military released a statement indicating that a new commercial airport built near Joint Base Lewis-McChord “would be incompatible with the military's aviation operations and mission-readiness.”

Hendrickson noted that in the rules that govern site selection, there is a stipulation that the new airport cannot impact the operations of established military bases, nor can it be in King County, which is Washington's most populated county and home to Sea-Tac.

It is unlikely any of the greenfields will be developed, Hendrickson said, adding, "To date, no government on a local level, or sovereign council, have given any level of support to these greenfield sites. There is no government support, zero sovereign support, the universal message is 'No, not here.’"

Yakima Option

One suggestion under consideration is to build the proposed 3,000-acre facility on the east side of the state in the Yakima Valley. Yakima Valley has a population of approximately 256,035 and it is home to Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field (KYKM), which has been in operation since the 1920s. 

According to airport officials, KYKM currently serves more than 70,000 passengers—a number projected to double by 2030. The airport is home to commercial air carriers such as Alaska Airlines, Sun Country Airlines, Swift Air, FedEx, and United Parcel Service as well as a healthy general aviation community.

Yakima County officials did not respond to FLYING’s request for comment.

According to the Yakima Herald, state planners indicate Yakima County officials have expressed interest in having a new airport built there.

"Yakima had an 80 percent positive response," says Hendrickson. "The airport could bring in $31 billion into the economy and 909,000 jobs."

According to Hendrickson, the Yakima location faces the challenge of accessing the location from the west side of the state and would require roadways crossing the Cascade Mountains and rail be improved to handle an increase in traffic.

If Nothing is Done

The CACC has until June to make its recommendation to the state for a new airport location. As far back as 1992, the state saw the challenge approaching and began looking at ways to mitigate the issue.

"In 1992, it was recommended that a third runway be built at Sea-Tac,” Hendrickson said. “That was done. It was also recommended that passenger service be added at Paine Field (KPAE). That was done. The third recommendation was to build another airport in Pierce County in the south sound—and here we are."

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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