I attended a ‘Sustainable Airport Master Plan (SAMP) scoping Open House last night, for one of the fastest-growing commercial airports in the U.S.: Sea-Tac, serving the Seattle and Puget Sound [KSEA]. There is a lot to report, but even more, a lot to think about, especially this: what can I say to empower other impacted citizens so they can be as effective as possible when attending these events?
As a retired FAA employee (an air traffic control whistleblower, no less) who spent a full career working within the FAA culture and then embarked on a decade of research on how the FAA work culture has performed while implementing NextGen, I may have some insights to share. One of those insights is simply this: from what I saw at Highline Community College, on September 10th, these Port of Seattle (aka, POS) scoping Open Houses are not even a dog-and-pony-show; they are just occasions for industry players to check off a list pretending to engage citizens, while also spewing out their pro-aviation propaganda. And, just to be clear, this is not an aberration; this is par for the course, as it has been for at least a decade; at nearly all of our airports, when public forums related to environmental impacts and master plans and such are held, they have generally devolved into just a gamed process, a charade … which is why lots of people choose not to attend. [NOTE: they want more of us to not attend, which is itself the imperative defining why YOU MUST ATTEND, if you care about your home and health!]
What To Expect When You Attend
A common event design is to set up a signup area and feed the ‘signed-in guests’ into the next room, where they can sequentially (or randomly) view a series of whiteboards. Each whiteboard represents an element of the review process, such as ‘noise’ or ‘air quality’ or ‘water quality’. Now, ideally, each whiteboard actually displays some valuable information – perhaps a design, a satellite view, a table, a list of project elements, etc. Well, that is the ideal. At the POS Open House last night, more than half the whiteboards were, well, just empty white boards. Nada. Zilch. In fact, the only area where they had consistently replaced the blank whiteboards was at the front end: the first half dozen were a blatant effort to dupe us into thinking the Seattle economy and the Seattle population were ‘demanding’ the growth in air travel. The very first whiteboard had some words laying out this spiel, and included a list of prominent Seattle-area businesses, including Costco, PACCAR, Amazon, etc. So, we are supposed to start to see, ‘gee, if Sea-Tac does not expand, maybe these big companies will leave town’. (hint: they likely will not and in fact, if things decline and they do, most of us will applaud their riddance) Two whiteboards later was a very deceptive graph with a green line and a blue, showing population growth as well as airport passenger growth. More about that graph later in this Post.
Another thing you will notice is there are LOTS of smiley-faced people wearing event badges and standing in front of the display boards. As you talk to them and ask questions, you will start to establish that most of them are employed by the Port of Seattle, but that also, quite a few are either FAA or contractors. Everyone of these people owe their income (and eventual retirement) to this industry, and as such it is not surprising that they come across as ‘all for expansion and just plain unable to understand how bad the impacts are on residents under the new concentrated flight paths. I also noticed that, by 7:30pm (2-hours into the 3-hour event), there were practically no residents left, but maybe 30- or even 40+ badge-wearing staffers standing around in front of all the whiteboards.
I found it disturbing, trying to communicate with these people on a human-to-human level. They come across as machines, rigidly focused on the industry-serving goal, which in this case is to spend billions of dollars expanding Sea-Tac’s airport facilities, to serve the demand generated by two dominant airlines, Alaska and Delta. Ask any of these people a hard question and their pat answer is to remind you, they are only here tonight to help you formulate your question so that you can submit it to the ‘scoping process’. Well, that in itself is bullshit, and here is why. For each of these people (some would accurately note they are in fact parasites feeding off the power and money of the aviation-government complex), their first and foremost reason for getting paid to stand in front of the display boards and greet you is to ease your acceptance of the fact they are going to ram this expansion project onto you and your home. They are there to help you believe the distortions behind the expansions.
These staffers were sized up perfectly with this famous quote:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
This quote was by Upton Sinclair, back in the 1930s. Click here for a Post showing an example of how FAA, all the way to the top, could not understand an obvious controller safety error at a California airport … and know, too, these things happen surprisingly frequently.
One of Their Distortions is the So-Called ‘Demand’ Myth
OK, here is a copy of the graph mentioned earlier, at the front end of the area filled with whiteboards and staffers:
This is the demand graph POS displayed last night, although this is an online copy as displayed at a POS event in July. Interestingly, POS decided to remove the headline last night, perhaps because they know it is utterly false; just look at how passenger growth vastly outstrips population growth, with the green line CROSSING the blue line. So, although the headline was not displayed last night, nonetheless staffers were using this graphic and making comments, over and over again, to push the false perception that ‘demand’ at Sea-Tac is driven by Puget Sound area population growth. Such is not the case; AIRLINES DEFINE DEMAND, by scheduling in pursuit of higher profit margins.
You are supposed to believe that all of this Sea-Tac expansion is driven by market demand. This is false. The true demand is from the two major hub operators at Sea-Tac, Delta and Alaska. Each impacted citizen needs to understand the passenger airline business model. They make profits best when they route as many people as possible through the hub airports, where those people may never even leave the plane, or may exit one plane only to board another. The airport becomes a Grand Central Station for airline passengers, and the surrounding communities must bear an extremely intensified impact in added noise, added air pollutants, and overall diminished health and quality of life. This is what accounts for the bulk of the enormous growth at Sea-Tac since Delta announced a new business plan in 2012, with a new hub at Sea-Tac (operations grew 31% from 2012 to 2017, and have climbed 5.6% so far this calendar year). And, this is what is trashing lives under intensified and concentrated NextGen routes feeding in/out of KBOS, KDCA, KORD, KCLT, KSAN, KPHX, KSFO, and elsewhere.
Here’s another ponderous point on this graph, and something I asked to a few staffers last night (BTW, I never got a good answer): where did they get their population numbers? Using their numbers, for the 2017-2027 decade, the average annual growth is just 0.6%; umm, the entire U.S. averages closer to 1% annual population growth, and Seattle is bragged about (by people at POS, FAA, etc., no less!) as being a booming place (for population as well as economics). So, they created this graphic using data that does not come close to tracking the reality as measured right now. Indeed, Puget Sound Resource Council (PSRC) published a report ‘way back in August’ noting Puget Sound’s population is growing at a 1.5% annual rate. IMHO, the lack of diligence behind these graphics is shameful.
Frankly, if the Port of Seattle was sincere in defining this demand, they would do the hard work of accurately assessing precisely how many users of this airport are actually THROUGH-PASSENGERS, who fly in but then fly out, never even leaving the airport terminal. The best these connecting passengers will do to ‘boost’ the Puget Sound economy is waste away a few hours between flights, perhaps buying coffee or some fish and chips. Yet, because these two major airlines make substantial profits by offering these flight connections at Sea-Tac, there is much pressure on Port of Seattle (and FAA) to accommodate this airline demand. This is spun to us as ‘market demand’, which clearly it is not.
Let’s be clear: airline demand is not the same as market demand. The display boards referencing market demand are implicitly stating that you and I, as customers, define ‘demand’ for commercial aviation useage at Sea-Tac. We do not. The airlines define demand, and both the airport authority (POS) and the federal regulator (FAA) expend great effort to accommodate whatever air commerce asks for. Sadly, they do so while increasingly ignoring the real and growing impacts upon actual human lives.
Why is This Demand Myth Important?
It is extremely important, simply because the entire SAMP proposal is anchored on the idea their is real ‘demand’ creating a dire need to invest in these expansion proposals. Generally, where there is a desire to expand an airport (and, always, this expansion is simply to give more capacity to the dominant airline), there is a tendency for the data to be exaggerated to justify that investment. Thus, if and when any of us actually does the deeper research to see what FAA has forecast, we see an astonishing pattern of forecasts WAAYYYY over what history subsequently produces in real data. And, at events like the Open House last night, staffers are conveniently overlooking a shocking reality that they seem incapable of digesting: that, in the U.S., with the sole exception of a handful of airports where FAA and airport authorities are overly accommodating to enable the creation of ‘super-Hubs’ for near-monopoly airlines, operations have been flat and declining for decades.
The Demand Myth needs to be exposed and crushed. Read more at these earlier Posts:
What We Each Need to Do at These Open Houses
Yes, absolutely, you should submit comments (though you should also make your own copy or get POS to let you have a copy, so you have more tools to hold POS accountable with the comments you have provided). But, there is a lot more that can and should happen at each community event. Here are some suggestions:
- From the git-go, understand it is OK that you are not an expert, just an impacted citizen. As such, it is THEIR responsibility to help with the technical heavy-lifting.
- With the first note in mind, ask questions and DEMAND real answers. Then, ask harder questions. Follow through. Make these staffers serve you; after all, per NEPA, that is precisely what they are supposed to be doing at each such event, when they field your questions.
- With your questions, try altering your approach. For example, try to appeal to this aviation professional (the staffer there to talk with you) human-to-human; try to establish if they have the capacity to actually recognize the impacts their work is having upon you and your neighbors; try to see if they might possibly have the strength of character to speak up against the prevailing current within a culture that is biased toward commerce and against people.
- Think outside the box. For example, last night, it fit well to ask them if they agree that Sea-Tac is operating beyond its design capacity (they all felt it was not … tell that to those being delayed on arrivals, and those waiting for long periods after landing, needing a gate to open up). Ask them, would it help if Delta and Alaska voluntarily reduced their schedules by say 20% during certain peak hours? Ask them who has the authority to manage capacity at Sea-Tac … what can POS do, what can FAA do? Ask them, especially if they are a POS employee, have they ever advocated on behalf of impacted citizens, and will they serve the people (not just the airlines) by advocating for people in the future? Think national-scale and ask them, if Sea-Tac were to impose real capacity management, would these constraints really have an adverse impact on the entire national airspace system, or would they actually just nudge airlines like Delta and Alaska to increase schedules elsewhere, and not abuse Seattle with far too many flights?
- Always, ALWAYS, keep it clearly in your focus: the staffer you are speaking with works for you (in theory) and at that precious moment while you are chatting, you are the most powerful representative of humanity to assist him/her in learning their need to advocate for people first, ahead of industry players. Help them to see beyond the corrupted culture in which they are trapped solely for a paycheck.