Proposed Southwest Airlines move kicks up serious skepticism

King County Executive Ron Sims describes a recently revealed proposal to move Southwest Airlines flight operations to the King County International Airport from Sea-Tac as "a once-in-a-generation opportunity."

Others - including King County Council members Dwight Pelz and Larry Phillips - don't see it that way, but talks between the low-cost carrier and Sims' office have been going on since 2003, the executive wrote to council members last month.

"The discussions with Southwest have recently led us to the point where we believe there is a possibility of reaching a tentative agreement," he added in the letter.

According to Sims, the move would help stabilize finances at Boeing Field, as the airport is also known, but he concedes there are many issues that need to be worked out before an agreement can be forged between the county and the airline.

Chief among them are concerns about the proposal's impacts on Magnolia, Beacon Hill, Georgetown and West Seattle. "Noise is the number-one concern with us," said Carolyn Duncan from Sims' office.

Jet noise is an issue because flight paths into Boeing Field are lower than they are at Sea-Tac, something the four neighborhoods mentioned above are well aware of already. Adding approximately 40 to as high as 90 Southwest flights a day would only exacerbate the problem, according to Phillips.

"It means we're in big trouble," he said of the proposal's impact on his constituents in Magnolia. "We haven't solved the noise problems we've already got."

The Federal Aviation Administration is studying an idea that would route jet traffic to Boeing Field over Elliott Bay instead of Magnolia, but that's a change that won't happen any time soon, according to Boeing Field spokeswoman Rita Creighton. "That's quite a ways away," she said.

And assuming the FAA approves the flight-path change, it wouldn't help Pelz's constituents in Georgetown and Beacon Hill. "I really don't understand why we should do it," he said of the proposed change. "You have to have a really good reason to burden people with noise, and they haven't [given one]," Pelz added.

There's also the question of who pays for improvements that need to be made to move Southwest operations to Boeing Field. The airline would be expected to invest "significant amounts of private money," according to Sims.

However, Pelz noted, investments would have to cover not only an expanded terminal, but also a parking garage, security and - perhaps more significantly - improved road access.

"It totally fails our concurrency rules," he said of a provision in the state's Growth Management Act that calls for making transportation improvements to handle growth.

Phillips noted that Airport Way South, which leads to Boeing Field, is only a two-lane road with a single turn lane, a thoroughfare that would be hard-pressed to handle an estimated 2 million Southwest passengers a year.

Sea-Tac also stands to take a major financial hit if Southwest moves away, and that would affect financing for the third runway and extending Sound Transit's light-rail system all the way to the airport, he said.

Pelz worries that the Southwest move will set a precedent that the Alaska and Horizon airlines will want to follow. "You're just going to have a huge boondoggle," he said. "Sea-Tac and Boeing Field work right now," said Pelz, who added that moving Southwest Airlines could destabilize both airports.

Actually, both Horizon and Alaska have approached the county numerous times over the years about moving to Boeing Field, according to Harold Taniguchi, director of the county's Department of Transportation.

However, he would neither confirm nor deny a report that Alaska Airlines has recently approached the county again about moving to Boeing Field. Taniguchi also declined to reveal any details of preliminary negotiations between Southwest and the county.

Sims is promising to go through a public process to allow citizens to obtain information and provide input about the Southwest proposal. He also wrote the council that the county will go through a environmental-review process to study noise, traffic, air and other impacts of the proposal.

"I think the council is going to reject it," said Pelz of the proposal. "The question is, how much money are we going to spend studying it?"

Phillips is taking a wait-and-see attitude. "It may break down and not go anywhere," he said of the idea.Russ Zabel may be contacted through [[In-content Ad]]