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Originally published January 27, 2015 at 8:58 PM | Page modified January 28, 2015 at 7:59 PM

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Big Sea-Tac expansion plans bring big headaches over money, logistics

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is looking at huge expansion options to accommodate the expected boom in passengers over the next 20 years. But designing and funding the projects won’t be easy, if Tuesday’s meeting about the plans is any indication.


Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is looking at huge expansion options to accommodate the expected boom in passengers over the next 20 years. But designing and funding the projects won’t be easy, if Tuesday’s meeting about the plans is any indication.

A new International Arrivals Facility planned for 2019 is only the beginning. Also on the drawing board are plans for 35 more airplane gates added to the north and south of the airport’s 81 current gates, and potentially an additional new passenger terminal.

Airport officials Tuesday began publicly discussing how to cope with the anticipated traffic growth — from 37 million passengers passing through the airport last year, to a projected 66 million two decades from now.

Yet the most immediate project — the new International Arrivals Facility (IAF), whose estimated cost has recently been raised from $344 million to $608 million — is already causing a fierce dispute between Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines over how, or even whether, it should be funded.

In an interview before Tuesday’s meeting, Mike Medeiros, Delta vice president in charge of Seattle operations, described the planned facility as “critically, critically important for Sea-Tac to keep a competitive edge” against rival West Coast airline gateways such as Vancouver, B.C., and San Francisco.

In contrast, Joe Sprague, senior vice president for external affairs at Alaska Airlines, called it “exorbitantly expensive.”

“Can we afford a $600 million international arrivals facility? Is that really needed?” Sprague said in an interview.

Mark Reis, managing director at Sea-Tac Airport, is clearly on Delta’s side as to whether a new facility is needed.

Characterizing Sea-Tac’s international-arrivals gateway as “the front door to this growing, vibrant, internationally oriented city,” Reis outlined how deficient the current facility is and said “doing nothing is not an option.”

Growing fast

Driving the larger discussion is the expected growth ahead at Sea-Tac, by some measures the nation’s fastest-growing airport last year.

In 2014, its passenger count was up 7.5 percent, whileplane takeoffs and landings rose 6.9 percent year-on-year.

By 2034, the airport projects 540,000 takeoffs and landings per year, compared with 350,000 last year. During peak hours, according to the forecast, 120 planes will take off or land, compared with 88 today.

Such a prospective surge in air traffic will likely raise concern among neighborhood groups about the noise from flights overhead.

At the airport, it also creates huge infrastructure demands: more gates for the jets to dock, more space for the passengers passing through, more parking for all the cars, more warehouse space for all the extra cargo.

At this stage, the firmest ideas are for adding airplane gates.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Port of Seattle Commission, airport officials laid out proposals that offer two options for adding gates at the south end and two more for adding gates at the north end.

“We anticipate we will need to add gates both north and south,” Reis said in an interview.

Slides presented Tuesday also outlined a potential expansion of the main passenger terminal and a new additional terminal where the Doug Fox parking lot is now.

As the airport needs to run smoothly throughout any construction, all the options are logistically challenging, with multiple moving pieces to the puzzle.

For example, the proposal to expand the main terminal entails extending it toward the parking garage from the second floor up.

But that means the road that drivers use to access the departures area would have to go somewhere else.

One possibility outlined in the drawings presented Tuesday is to cut into the parking garage for that road. Another is to introduce a tram-like Airport People Mover along a corridor connecting to the departures area.

International facility

The difficulties that lie ahead in nailing down such decisions was apparent Tuesday from the discussion of the more immediate project: the proposed International Arrivals Facility.

Port commissioners seemed in full agreement with Reis that a new IAF is needed.

Commissioner Tom Albro said international air services are “critically important” to the region and noted that every new international route brings $75 million of economic activity per year.

“That’s a big deal,” Albro said, then added, “How we pay for it is something we need to dig into.”

That’s where the controversy arises.

Alaska Airlines, the hometown carrier that is the airport’s largest user and that pays the Port $115 million per year, stridently objects to current options that involve 80 percent of the cost coming from federal fees tacked onto every passenger’s ticket at U.S. airports.

Those fees, $4.50 per ticket, are already in place and won’t rise as a result of this construction project.

But Alaska wants that ticket-fee money allocated primarily for main terminal and airfield improvements, not for an international-arrivals facility that will be a boon more to its rival, Delta.

Alaska wants the majority of funding for the international facility to come from higher airport fees and rates charged to Delta and the other international carriers, which would then likely pass the cost along to passengers on their flights.

At the meeting, Alaska’s Sprague argued it’s unfair that fees attached to domestic-passenger tickets would be used to benefit passengers on international flights.

And seizing upon the dramatic increase in the project’s cost estimate, he called on the Port Commission to “go back to the drawing board and come up with a project that costs less money.”

The commissioners are undecided on how the cost share will be parceled out.

As they voted to let staff go ahead with the process of selecting a design firm, Commissioner Bill Bryant said he’d “grudgingly” support doing so, “but don’t interpret that as being on board with the current budget or finance plan.”

However, none of the commissioners seemed at all inclined to take Alaska’s advice to scrap the IAF plan altogether.

Commissioner Courtney Gregoire cited the overcrowding at the current arrivals facility last summer and said the new IAF is a project “that makes perfect sense.”

Airport director Reis told the commissioners that the airport has collected $972 million in passenger ticket fees since they were initiated in 1992, and that all of that money has gone to main-terminal and airfield improvements, with not a penny to the international facility.

He pointed out that Alaska, the sole airline using the north satellite, is paying just 42 percent of the cost of the separate major improvement project there, with all the other airport carriers, including the international carriers, paying the rest.

Commissioner John Creighton said that while the Port wants “to support our hometown airline, we also have to have parity and fairness across the board.”

Delta officials did not attend the public meeting. But in the interview beforehand, Delta Vice President Medeiros said that if Alaska got its way, the airport rates charged to international airlines would rise so exorbitantly that Sea-Tac wouldn’t be competitive with alternative West Coast airports.

In that case, Medeiros said, airport officials will find it “difficult to maintain what they have and even more difficult to attract new international flying.”

Reis said the huge increase in the estimated cost for the IAF project was because the original $344 million figure “was a very early general number. It was never a budget, never a projected cost,” and lacked the specifics that went into the revised estimate of $608 million.

Reis acknowledged the challenge of coming up with a funding plan acceptable to the rival airlines.

Alaska carries more than half of Sea-Tac’s passengers. Delta is growing fast and aims to make Sea-Tac a major international gateway.

“Being between two important and valuable customers is not the most comfortable place to be,” said Reis. “The commission’s job ultimately is to find the right balance. That’s the challenge.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, he stressed to the commissioners that a decision on the precise allocation of funds can be pushed out, if need be, until fall 2018, just before the new IAF opens in 2019.

But Albro and Gregoire said the commission should try to give airport staff some clear direction on the issue of how the various airlines should be affected within the next few months.

“We have no choice but to move forward” with the IAF project, said Albro, but the airport shouldn’t do so “under a cloud of uncertainty or dissatisfaction.”

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com



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