Poor public showing marks Southwest Airlines meeting on Beacon Hill

The rhetoric and the spin appeared to fly faster than the jetliners roaring into SeaTac overhead at the Sept. 7 South Beacon Hill Neighborhood Council meeting concerning Southwest Airlines' proposed move to Boeing Field. Members of the audience sat with arms crossed, occasionally breaking into tight smiles as heated exchanges soared between opponents of the move and King County and the Texas-based airline's representatives.

Both sides of the issue appeared emphatic about their respective positions, and there was no actual shouting or name-calling.

Perhaps this was because meeting chairman Bill Mallow presented written rules stating, "We are here to learn. We are not here to scream, yell, etc. If you are not prepared to follow these simple rules, leave now or we will call the police."

However, it did not appear that the discourse changed the minds of anyone in attendance.

An ironic atmosphere

An airplane noise-sandwich set the ambience for the meeting in the back of St. Mark's Lutheran Church on Beacon Ave. S. Propeller plane and turboprop noise from Boeing Field buzzed outside one side of the building while jetliners approaching Sea-Tac roared on the other.

More people attended the meeting as representatives of various airline and governmental organizations than as folks speaking for the neighborhoods affected by Southwest's proposal. A dozen people were in attendance.

The non-neighborhood representatives included three public relations staffers from Southwest Airlines, led by Marilee McGinnis; Harold S. Taniguchi, director of the King County Department of Transportation; Al Runte, candidate for mayor, who lives in the Eastlake neighborhood overlooking South Lake Union; Jen McSkimming, media relations manager for Horizon Airlines who spoke against moving commercial air operations to Boeing Field; and Mike Stewart of the Sound Air Alliance who was not on the agenda and only introduced himself at the end.

Getting started

Mallow, the South Beacon Hill Neighborhood Council president, presented a spreadsheet showing King County International Airport (Boeing Field) currently hosting 820 takeoffs and landings in a 24-hour period.

According to his figures, the time between activities averages 1.76 minutes. His figures showed that Southwest Airlines current proposal plans to add 40 takeoffs and landings to this mix.

"The final proposal calls for 83 takeoffs and landings at some time in the future," Mallow said. "If we put in general aviation, a flight would go off every 0.86 seconds."

When Mallow added figures from Alaska and Horizon Airlines to the possible mix, Horizon's Jen McSkimming reminded Mallow, "We at Alaska Air Group feel opening Boeing Field to commercial aviation is a bad idea."

She mentioned a 1996 Puget Sound Regional Council (of governments in the region) planning document which, according to McSkimming, stated "Sea-Tac is Seattle's commercial airport, and Boeing Field serves cargo and general aviation."

Opponents of the Southwest move pointed out that all airlines at Sea-Tac airport approved Sea-Tac's third runway, the improvements to the passenger terminals at the airport, and the soundproofing for homes affected by the third runway.

"King County approved Boeing Field's master plan, and opening Boeing Field to commercial airlines undermines all of that planning," McSkimming said.

Political candidate Al Runte raised many of the same issues, but he kept his talking points to his own race to unseat Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

"I don't feel that City Hall listens to us at all. Filling potholes is the most important promise the mayor can come up with," Runte said. "My priority is keeping (commercial) airplane traffic at Sea-Tac."

Proponents speak

Southwest Airlines PR specialist McGuiness spoke rapidly, running quickly through talking points summed up in a paper called "Preserving low fares." McGuiness made the point that the current landing fee at Sea-Tac may make it impossible for Southwest to continue to offer low fares.

She pointed to all of the economic benefits Southwest brings into the community, and that it has more than 31,000 employees. She mentioned that Southwest has an all-Boeing fleet, and was the "launch customer" for three varieties of 737s. She claimed that Southwest has never failed to exercise its option with Boeing, and the airline "kept the 737 assembly lines open after the Gulf War and 9/11." Her comments, for the most part, mirrored the written paper she handed out to the audience.

Both McGuiness and Taniguchi emphasized that the two parties are only studying the feasibility of moving Southwest to Boeing Field. They noted that if the studies show serious environmental or economic problems that cannot be overcome, Southwest would drop the proposal.

"There are two compelling reasons to continue the study," Taniguchi said. "The first, a $1.6 million in economic impact, with the company putting $130 million of its own money into it. [Secondly], we are a federally funded airport, and we are required to give due diligence to this plan."

Taniguchi asked the audience how they would react if he could show that the King County Regional Council does not say Sea-Tac should be the only commercial airport in the region, and that an upcoming Regional Council report would say that SeaTac does not preclude other airports from serving commercial aviation?

"I am not saying that we have to approve it," he said. "If it is a bad deal, we're not going to do it."

Opponents have a say

Taniguchi got a quick answer to his question from Mallow, and from his fellow council member Frederica Merrill.

"King County is one of the busiest general aviation airports in the country," Merrill stated.

"The airport is operating under capacity," Taniguchi countered.

Mallow said the Federal Aviation Administration requires a three-minute separation between a commercial airline takeoff and any other plane traffic, and he wondered how the King County International Airport could continue to serve general and freight aviation with this traffic.

"Why should we believe anything the county is saying?" Merrill asked, looking at Taniguchi. "A lot of people have a problem with the way Ron [Sims, the King County Executive] and you are going back into a corner to study this."

Merrill emphasized that the discussion about capacity at airports needs to go to a regional level.

"We can't have a regional discussion in your office," she said. "You are narrowing the discussion to Boeing Field and you are not talking about a regional solution."

Merrill noted a lot of time and money already went into the 1996 regional plan which set forth Sea-Tac as the primary commercial airport.

"You waste everybody's time and tax dollars with this study. It makes me angry!" Merrill said.

Merrill and Mallow said they believed King County continues to study Southwest's proposal because Boeing Field is losing money.

Taniguchi responded by saying, "We're not technically in the red. There was a $300,000 deficit."

"When is the last time you raised landing fees?" Mallow asked before responded to Southwest's promise to use only the latest-model Boeing 737 and to use steeper landings and takeoffs.

"Love Field (in Dallas, Texas) is out on flat ground. Cleveland is on a level field, but Boeing Field is in a valley. The sound literally reverberates between two hills."

When the issue of air pollution was brought up, Merrill said that Beacon Hill residents already have higher asthmatic rates from exhaust fumes on I-5, and putting jet fumes into the mix will add to the problem.

Shortly after this Mallow backed off from confronting airline and county representatives asked if anyone else in the audience had any questions.

"My sister lives in Orange County, and she can't find any sales," said audience member Warren Yee in reference to McSkimming's point about alleged low-fares before adding, "A friend of mine lives in Mill Creek, and he would love to have Southwest fly into Payne Field."

Mike Stewart pointed out that Sound Air Alliance was also watching the situation before Mallow ended the meeting, quickly.

John Livingston may be reached via editor@sdistrictjournal.com.l[[In-content Ad]]