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Wednesday, May 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Sea-Tac director resigns; guided decade of change

By J. Martin McOmber
Seattle Times business reporter

Gina Marie Lindsey
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Gina Marie Lindsey, the polished and powerful bureaucrat who led Seattle-Tacoma International Airport though a decade of painful growth and profound changes in the airline industry, will leave the job this summer to move to Washington D.C.

Lindsey has been a key figure in the bruising fight to build a third runway at Sea-Tac. With construction due to resume next month, her decision to leave comes at a crucial time for a project that has doubled in cost to $1.2 billion and remains mired in lawsuits.

But for a woman who runs the nation's 17th-busiest airport and rose to the top ranks of an industry still dominated by an "old boys club," the chance to relocate and rebuild a personal life shattered by last year's death of her only son was more important.

"To be frank about it, I need to put a future life together that doesn't have the same centerpiece that it used to," Lindsey said. "A different job, a different town and a different house — that will facilitate that kind of evolution."

Lindsey, 50, is not sure what she will do in Washington, although it will probably involve policy work for the aviation industry. The move was prompted by her husband, Tom Dow, an executive at Princess Cruises who has accepted a job lobbying for the cruise line's parent company, Carnival Corp.

Lindsey will remain at the $196,000-a-year job until mid-August. The Port has asked airport Deputy Director Mark Reis to take her place.

The handoff should be relatively seamless, Port Commission President Paige Miller said.

Reis has worked closely with Lindsey for years. His strength in financial matters will come in handy as the Port struggles to pay for the largest expansion in its history without raising landing fees high enough to drive away cash-strapped airlines.

Lindsey's decision "comes at a good time, because so much of what she spent her tenure putting in place is complete or within earshot of completion," Miller said.

Lindsey, a native of Alaska, was the director of Anchorage International Airport when Sea-Tac lured her away in 1993.

A communications graduate of Walla Walla College, she opted for a career with Alaska's transportation department over lower-paying work as a television reporter.
 
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At Sea-Tac, her job largely boiled down to one thing: Build the third runway. The proposed runway sparked a furious protest, mostly from communities near the airport.

Despite the opposition, Lindsey said she never expected to be working on the project for so long.

Her frustration over delays, rising costs, and legal fights was apparent in March.

"Would I have taken the job if I had known I would spend 10-½ years fighting for a runway?" she asked. "The answer is probably not. Let's get a life."

Although legal challenges remain in the state Supreme Court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the airport may start work this summer filling in the wetlands at the center of the lawsuits. Opponents are trying to block the work.

"She has not done anything extraordinary in terms of finding other solutions at Sea-Tac," said Stuart Creighton, chairman of the Airport Communities Coalition, a nonprofit group fighting the runway. "She has worked right down the line to follow the Port's plan."

The runway is one element of the airport's $4.2 billion expansion, which started in the 1990s as a growing number of planes and passengers pushed Sea-Tac to capacity.

The work includes the new Arrivals Hall and Concourse A, which is to open this spring, and an expansion of the main terminal, to be completed next year.

Sea-Tac's first major renovations in 30 years were designed to update its drab interior and help the airport generate more money from the sale of food, books, magazines and gifts.

But the costs of construction — including the third runway — will push landing fees at Sea-Tac to some of the highest in the country, squeezing airlines that have lost billions of dollars and a large chunk of its business from the recession and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The attacks also forced the airport to accommodate sweeping and expensive changes in security and screening equipment.

Mounting financial pressure last year led Lindsey and the Port to lay off 66 airport employees. Last month, she was in Washington, D.C., asking the Federal Aviation Administration to nearly double the $216 million the agency has pledged for the third runway.

Meanwhile, Sea-Tac changed the way it charges airlines, shifting more financial risk to the airport in return for the chance to generate more revenue and make better use of airport property. Airlines grumbled that the new contract strips them of the power to block expensive construction projects.

In 2003, Lindsey was elected chairwoman of Airports Council International — North America, a trade group that represent major airports in the U.S. and Canada. She was the first woman to hold the position.

"I would be real surprised if 10 percent of our airport directors were women," said David Plavin, the organization's president. "(Her election) is a testament, in some ways, because all these 'good-old boy' airport directors thought she would be a good chair."

As the group's spokeswoman, Lindsey was among the first to pressure the new Transportation Security Administration over the long lines at airport checkpoints, Plavin said.

But as she wowed lawmakers and led Sea-Tac through tumultuous years of change, Lindsey was dealing with tragedy.

In March 2003, her son, Jeremy Houk, a Tulane University freshman, disappeared after a party in New Orleans during Mardi Gras weekend. More than two months later, his body was found in the Mississippi River, where he had drowned.

Lindsey decided to wait before making any major changes. But Miller, who lives a block away from Lindsey on Queen Anne, said it was clear during their long walks together that Lindsey was ready to move on.

"Her leaving is a huge loss for us, but given what has happened in her life in the last year or so, absolutely understandable," Miller said.

"She has been remarkable at being an open and very human leader through all of this time."

J. Martin McOmber: 206-464-2022 or mmcomber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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