Sweetening the deal for its controversial proposed move to Boeing Field, Southwest Airlines pledged Aug. 18 to use only the quietest of Boeing jets, to not schedule red-eye flights and to use GPS technology to route southbound flights over Elliott Bay if its proposed move to Boeing Field is successful.
Not everyone was impressed with the promises, but the low-cost carrier maintains that moving from Sea-Tac International Airport to the King County facility would be good for the flying public, Boeing Field itself and the Puget Sound region.
The move is necessary for the Texas-based company's bottom line, according to Ron Ricks, a senior vice president who oversees the law, airports and public-affairs divisions of Southwest Airlines.
Describing Southwest as a prominent low-fare airline, he said the company makes up for low ticket prices with a high volume of passengers. To be sure, the business model has proved highly successful almost since the company was launched in 1971.
"We've been profitable for the [past] 32 years," Ricks said. "We carry more people than anybody else in the United States," he added. But the old maxim that a business either grows or flounders also holds true for Southwest.
"We're not making enough money to grow as we'd like to," Ricks said. The problem, he said, is that Sea-Tac is an expensive place to do business. "The costs at Sea-Tac more than doubled from 1994 to 2005," Ricks said.
The Port of Seattle has been coming up with different numbers, but the cost of operating at the regional airport is expected to double again by either 2009 or 2010, he added. "We've been looking at alternatives to Sea-Tac for a couple of years," Ricks went on to say. That search led to Boeing Field, which a slick, magazine-style proposal from Southwest describes as "an under- utilized airport in the Puget Sound region with untapped airport capacity."
It would also be cheaper by half to operate there than at Sea-Tac, Ricks said. That would be a major plus for Southwest, which currently operates 38 flights a day at Sea-Tac. "If we were allowed to go to Boeing Field, we would start at 60 [flights a day] right away," he said.
A new, $130-million, eight-gate terminal and parking garage that the airline says it will pay for at the airport would allow Southwest to operate a maximum of 80 flights a day, Ricks said. Others put that figure at 85, which involves both landings and takeoffs and effectively doubles the amount of air traffic.
The expanded flight schedule would also have a spillover effect, according to the magazine-style proposal. The document talks about the so-called Southwest Effect, which maintains that other airlines will drop their fares to remain competitive with Southwest. Quoting U.S. Department of Transportation studies, the proposal asserts that it's something that has happened elsewhere in the country where Southwest operates.
A Southwest move to Boeing Field would be good for the airport as well, according to Ricks. "King County says Boeing Field is losing money now," he said. "Our proposal would make Boeing Field a money-maker, not a money-loser."
King County Council members Larry Phillips, who represents the Queen Anne and Magnolia areas, and Dwight Pelz, who serves constituents in south Seattle, both deny the county airport is in such dire straights. Phillips said Boeing Field makes money some years and loses money in others, but generally the airport operates in the black.
Pelz said he's been on the council for nine years and hasn't heard there was a problem. "No one came to me and said Boeing Field is broken," he added. But even if there were a problem, it's easily fixed, according to Pelz. "Their fees are very low. They can raise their fees and do just fine," he said.
Ricks touted the fact that Southwest will use relatively quiet 737-700 jets at Boeing Field. The so-called whisper jets are not only quieter than other aircraft, they can climb at a higher angle on takeoff, he said of an ability that would lessen noise impacts for residents near the airport.
Pelz scoffs at the claim. The 737-700 may be quieter, he said, "but when they're flying over your house, they're noisy." It's also a question of fairness for south Seattle residents who already face noise impacts from existing operations at Boeing Field. "We've got noise, we did our share, it's not our turn to go next," he said of both himself and his constituents.
Robert Bismuth, too, is skeptical. He lives in Magnolia, in the path of incoming jets heading to Boeing Field. In truth, he said, the noise on the new jets is only 10 to 15 decibels less than the older models generate. "And when you're living under them, you're not going to detect a difference."
Bismuth, who operates a plane out of Boeing Field, complained that Southwest would drive out General Aviation business at the airport if its move were successful. But he's also a member of the newly formed Sound Air Alliance, an organization that includes the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, which has slammed the Southwest proposal as well.
Scott Ingham, a spokesman for the Sound Air Alliance, agrees with Bismuth that people won't be able to tell much difference in noise levels from the newer jets. "That's really a non-starter in our book," he said. "Noise is noise. That's our view on this."
Ricks said all of the 737-700s are equipped with GPS systems that will allow them to fly over Elliott Bay instead of using instrument-guided approaches to fly over Magnolia. That will help Magnolia, Ingham conceded. "But I can guarantee people in West Seattle won't be happy about this," he said.
The GPS system also won't help residents in the Georgetown and Beacon Hill neighborhoods, where Boeing Field-bound flights are on their final approach, Pelz noted.
Bismuth brings up another point. GPS systems can only be used during daylight hours when visibility is good, he said. "So anytime it's questionable, they'll be coming in [over land] on a precision-instrument approach."
The pledge not to operate red-eye flights between midnight and 5 a.m. is a hollow promise, according to Ingham. "They don't anyway," he said. Ricks conceded that was true, but he said the airline might want to in the future.
Both Alaska and Horizon airlines have both said they would want to move to Boeing Field if Southwest were able to set up shop there. It's unclear if that would be possible, but the Sound Air Alliance warns that having all three airlines at the county airport would entail 5,419,548 boardings a year. Expanded Southwest operations alone would generate 2,935,500 boardings a year at Boeing Field, according to Alliance figures.
Ricks described the call from Alaska and Horizon to shift their operations to Boeing Field as a political move intended to kill the Southwest deal. But whatever the increase in flights ends up being, it brings up the issue of how passengers would get to the airport.
Ricks maintains that the existing road system is adequate, but opponents don't buy the argument. "That's a huge issue for us," said Ingham from the Sound Air Alliance.
Still, Ron Sims has said that no tax dollars will be used to make road improvements, and Ricks said Southwest won't pay for them, either. But Southwest will pay for a full-blown Environmental Impact Study to determine if traffic and noise would be a problem, according to Ricks.
He doesn't think it will be an issue. "The preliminary analysis is 180 degrees opposite of what the rumor-mongers would have you believe," Ricks said.
Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 461-1309.