On May 23, 1989, the Port of Seattle and Puget Sound Council of Governments (reorganized as the Puget Sound Regional Council in 1991) signed an Interagency Agreement to launch the “Flight Plan” study of future air service capacity needs and solutions, including the possible expansion of Sea-Tac International Airport. The effort was triggered in 1988 during preparation of the Port of Seattle’s “Comprehensive Planning Review and Airspace Update Study.” This analysis projected that the existing two runways at Sea-Tac International Airport could reach “maximum efficient capacity” by the year 2000. Planners and forecasters at the Puget Sound Council of Governments (PSCOG) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) soon arrived at the same conclusion.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport opened with one runway in 1944 and became fully operational in 1949. An additional runway was built 800 feet to the west in 1970 to accommodate increased air traffic and larger jetliners. This narrow separation prevented the use of both runways during fog and low clouds, or about 44 percent of the time, and capped the airport’s efficient capacity with minimum delays at about 380,000 operations (landings and takeoffs) per year.
Deregulation of U.S. airlines in 1978 stimulated competition within the airline industry and more than doubled the number of major carriers using Sea-Tac's two runways. Airport operations grew by half again from 195,000 operations to 316,000 operations in 1988, and annual passenger counts nearly doubled from 8.4 million to 14.5 million in the same period. Port planners projected that Sea-Tac could reach 400,000 annual operations by 2000, resulting in significant flight delays during times of limited visibility. (Sea-Tac operations passed 385,000 in 1997 and peaked at nearly 446,000 in 2000, but then declined to 365,000 in 2002 due to slumps in the economy and in national air travel after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.)
The Puget Sound Air Transportation Commission comprised 39 members representing the following agencies, groups and constituencies:
- six representatives of King County and its cities;
- two representatives of Pierce County;
- two representatives of Snohomish County;
- one representative of Kitsap County;
four members of the Washington State Legislature;
- one representative of the Governor (then Booth Gardner);
- four representatives of the regional business community;
- three representatives of major airlines;
- one representative of the Washington Environmental Council;
- three representatives of the Port of Seattle;
- one representative of the Federal Aviation Administration;
- three unaffiliated citizens, one each from Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish counties;
- one citizen member of the Port of Seattle Noise Management Mediation Committee.
The Port and PSCOG agreed to split the Committee’s initial $683,000 budget down the middle. Work began almost immediately and continued over the next two and one half years. Under the chairmanship of King County developer Bob Wallace, the committee and its staff examined a broad range of options, including construction of new primary and supplemental airports, expanded interurban rail services, and even development of a “remote airport” in Eastern Washington linked to Puget Sound by “bullet trains.”
An important part of the Flight Plan study was soliciting public opinion and educating and informing the public about the purpose of the study. During November 1990, a series of six open house meetings were held throughout King, Pierce, Kitsap, and Snohomish counties to review the potential scope of the study. In April and May 1991, four public meetings were held in the cities of SeaTac, Des Moines, Everett, and Tacoma to elicit public comment on a draft list of air transportation alternatives prepared by the Committee. These four meetings drew testimony from 150 people and written comments from more than 200 people.
Between December 1989 and June 1992, another 26 open public working sessions were held to promote a dialogue between the Committee and the public about regional air capacity needs. The Port of Seattle Commission also conducted 11 public briefings on airport issues during the same period.
The Committee voted on its preliminary preference on December 4, 1991, splitting 29 for and six against a plan that included the construction of a third runway for bad-weather operations at Sea-Tac International Airport, addition of commercial air service at Snohomish County's Paine Field, and development of a “supplemental airport” either at Tacoma’s McChord Air Force Base or at a new site in Thurston County.
PSATC then conducted 11 public hearings on its draft recommendations and the draft environmental impact statement between January 7 and March 23, 1992, in King, Pierce, Kitsap, Snohomish, and Thurston Counties. These meetings drew more than 4,300 people, of whom 650 testified. During the 75-day public comment period that followed, more than 2,100 written comments were received. In all, the committee received 25 pounds of correspondence.
The idea of a third Sea-Tac runway drew much criticism from cities and communities surrounding Sea-Tac, but expansion of other airports in the region were also opposed by their neighbors. Businesses and other economic interests supported quick action to preserve Puget Sound’s aviation links to the Pacific Rim and beyond.
Despite criticism by third-runway foes, PSATC chair Bob Wallace was confident of the Committee’s approach. The day of the final vote, he told the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, “We were looking to see if there was some fatal flaw in our plan, but there wasn’t.” Unable and unlikely ever to satisfy all interests and constituencies, the PSATC adopted its final recommendations on June 17, 1992, by an unchanged vote of 29 to 6. In summary, it advocated that the Council of Governments and Port pursue:
“...The phased implementation of a Multiple Airport System including the addition of a dependent air carrier runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport before the year 2000, and the introduction of scheduled air carrier service to Paine Field before the year 2000, and the identification of a two-runway supplemental airport site in Pierce County for development by the year 2010 in collaboration with the military [i.e., McChord Air Force Base], and failing that, the identification of a suitable site in Thurston County” (PSATC motion, June 17, 1992).
The final environmental impact statement reflecting for the Flight Plan process was published on October 6, 1992. The Port of Seattle Commission unanimously adopted its core recommendations on November 3, 1992, and the newly renamed Puget Sound Regional Council’s General Assembly adopted the essence of the PSATC report by an 89 percent majority on April 29, 1993.
Opponents of a third runway and of expanded use of other regional airports quickly organized. The PSRC abandoned the search for a supplemental airport in October 1994, leaving the third runway as the lone strategy to meet future air capacity needs. Project planning began in earnest in 1996.
In 1995, the cities of Tukwila, Des Moines, and Normandy Park formed the Airport Communities Coalition to stop the runway. (They were later joined by Federal Way and the Highline School District.) The Coalition filed a lawsuit and subsequent appeals. In May 2004, the State Supreme Court largely cleared the way for construction to resume, and on August 19, 2004, the Airport Communities Coalition dropped litigation, after having spent $15 million over 10 years campaigning and litigating against the third runway.
Construction of the 8,500-foot runway resumed with a projected completion date of 2008 and a projected total cost of $1.1 billion, three times the original estimate.