Seattle looking for suitable site to build second major international airport

Oct 9 2021, 3:31 am

Officials in Washington State are in the very early stages of planning the potential construction of a second major international airport to meet long-term aviation demand in Puget Sound, the Seattle region.

Projections show the existing Sea-Tac International Airport (SEA), even with achieving major expansions and improvements already underway and planned, will reach capacity over the coming decades.

SEA has a small footprint for an international airport serving its high traffic volumes, which reached over 50 million passengers for the first time in 2019 — up from about 33 million in 2010. In fact, SEA has the smallest land area for any major international airport in the United States.

An expansion of this footprint is not possible as the airport is landlocked, enclosed by urban development on all four sides. SEA’s small size also reduces the ability to reconfigure the airport for more efficient aircraft movements between the runways and terminal buildings.

sea-tac international airport seattle

Aerial view of Sea-Tac International Airport. (Google Maps)

Sea-Tac International Airport terminal

Aerial view of Sea-Tac International Airport. (Shutterstock)

Currently, the airport is undergoing a USD$3.3-billion expansion and improvement project, including the construction of a new USD$1-billion international terminal building that will be integrated with domestic terminal facilities, allowing the airport to become a Trans-Pacific hub — enabling it to directly compete with Vancouver International Airport (YVR).

The new 450,000 sq ft international terminal increases the number of international-capable gates from 12 to 20, increases the number of international bag claim carousels from four to seven, more than doubles international passenger capacity to 2,600 passengers per hour, and reduces the minimum passenger connection time from 90 to 75 minutes. This terminal facility is now expected to reach completion by the end of 2021.

But beyond existing plans for expansion, there is limited space for terminal building growth and additional airside logistics facilities, never mind additional runways and taxiways to handle the projected growth in both commercial passenger and cargo aircraft. This is all driven by the Seattle region’s strong economic and population growth, SEA’s growth into a Trans-Pacific hub, and the global growth in cargo from e-commerce.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

Artistic rendering of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s new expansion. (Port of Seattle)

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

Artistic rendering of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s new aerial walkway. (Port of Seattle)

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

Artistic rendering of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s new expansion. (Port of Seattle)

Prior to COVID-19, the airport was projected to reach 66 million passengers by 2034, which would begin to stretch SEA’s abilities to the limit. The post-pandemic recovery in global aviation is only anticipated to provide SEA a few years of additional borrowed time before it breaks through the less-than-optimal ceiling.

Earlier this year, the state commission tasked with identifying potential secondary major international airport sites shortlisted six existing local airports in the region for consideration for an overhaul and expansion into a major international airport.

This includes Arlington Municipal Airport, Paine Field-Snohomish County Airport in Everett, Bremerton National Airport, South Lewis County Airport in Toledo, Sanderson Field Airport in Shelton, and Tacoma Narrows Airport.

All of the airports shortlisted face major challenges, including close proximity to existing and future dense residential development, barriers to extending the length of existing runways for large aircraft, and/or distance from the region’s main population centres.

A second major international airport must be close to population centres, but far enough to not be constrained by SEA’s airspace.

Paine Field-Snohomish County Airport

Aerial of Paine Field-Snohomish County Airport. (Google Maps)

Some potential for meeting at least a small portion of the aviation demand was identified for Paine Field-Snohomish County Airport, which saw the completion of a new private passenger terminal building in 2019, allowing Alaska Airlines and United Airlines to begin commercial flights. The airport has room for just one runway, and the new terminal has only two gates — permitting only 24 departures and 24 arrivals — and further terminal expansion is generally limited as the airport primarily functions for the needs of Boeing’s Everett assembly plant. United Airlines is suspending its operations from this airport starting this month due to the pandemic’s impact.

The expected aviation demand in Puget Sound by 2050 will necessitate a second major international airport comparable to the size of SEA.

The state commission is required to present a refined list of two options for serious consideration by September 2022, and a final recommended option to the Washington State legislature by February 2023.

Building a new major international airport is often a decades-long process, considering the mandated consultation and environmental review, the level of financing required, and the years-long design and construction process. For these reasons, incremental expansion projects of existing airports are generally the preferred strategy for increasing a region’s aviation capacity.

Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport (SYD)

Aerial of Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport. (Google Maps)

Seattle’s airport situation is not entirely dissimilar to the challenges facing Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport (SYD), which has an artificial limit on its capacity due to legislated strict overnight flight curfews and flight caps — a policy to reduce aircraft noise in residential areas immediately adjacent to the airport. Further expansions to SYD are also challenged by its limited geographical area and its location in the concave of a small bay, surrounded by neighbourhoods.

Before the pandemic, SYD saw over 40 million passengers annually, and was expected to reach capacity by 2030.

Given the unsurmountable obstacles with a major expansion of SYD, after a decade of serious planning, the Australian government began construction in 2018 on a major secondary international airport for the Sydney region, called Western Sydney International Airport.

Western Sydney’s location on farm and rural lands is over 40 km east of downtown Sydney and SYD, but major investments in highway and rail rapid transit will optimize ground access and travel times.

western sydney international airport

Artistic rendering of Western Sydney International Airport. (Zaha Hadid Architects)

western sydney international airport

Artistic rendering of Western Sydney International Airport. (Zaha Hadid Architects)

western sydney international airport

Artistic rendering of Western Sydney International Airport. (Zaha Hadid Architects)

When Western Sydney’s first phase opens in 2026, the initial terminal building and single runway will be able to accommodate up to 10 million passengers annually. This first phase carries a cost of AUS$2.4 billion.

Ample land has been set aside to allow for an exponential increase in capacity; Western Sydney will be able to serve 82 million passengers annually through the expansion of the terminal building and the construction of additional runways.

Metro Vancouver’s principal airport, YVR, has plentiful flexibility on its site of Sea Island to undergo major expansion. Previous concepts by Vancouver Airport Authority show terminal building expansions can be accomplished by extending the international terminal eastward from the US-Transborder terminal, and extending all of the international and domestic piers. Beyond the expansion of the existing terminal, an additional satellite terminal could be built at an in-field location west of the domestic terminal.

YVR also has the ability to build two additional runways, including a parallel runway south of the existing south runway, and a foreshore runway on the western side of Sea Island, accomplished through extensive land reclamation. The latter runway option would likely face substantial cost and environmental hurdles.

Vancouver International Airport terminal expansion

East Terminal Building expansion concept for Vancouver International Airport showing the approximate location of the new additional Canada Line station. (Vancouver International Airport)

Terminal building expansion options. (Vancouver International Airport)

Vancouver International Airport runway options

Fourth runway alignment options for Vancouver International Airport, including a foreshore infill runway on the west side of Sea Island. (Vancouver Airport Authority)

Metro Vancouver, unlike Puget Sound, already has a second international airport that can potentially be significantly expanded over the very long term to serve the rapidly growing communities in both eastern Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. Over the past decade, Abbotsford International Airport (YXX), owned and operated by the City of Abbotsford, has seen success in growing commercial flights by focusing on being a low-cost alternative to YVR.

It has secured Air Canada Rouge, WestJet, Swoop, and Flair Airlines routes serving domestic destinations as far as Toronto and Montreal, and international destinations such as Las Vegas and Mexico. YXX’s passenger volumes exceeded one million passengers in 2019 — more than double the traffic it recorded just five years earlier.

Prior to the pandemic, YXX completed a terminal building expansion that added two gates, and expanded waiting, baggage claim, and pre-boarding securing screening areas. The airport was aiming to reach four million passengers annually by 2024.

Previous analysis suggests YXX could conceivably grow to handle 10 to 15 million passengers annually, plus a sizeable cargo volume, based on the development of 215 acres of city-owned airside and groundside land at the airport.

abbotsford international airport yxx

Aerial view of Abbotsford International Airport (YXX). (Google Maps)

Abbotsford International Airport terminal building expansion

Abbotsford International Airport terminal building expansion. (YXX)

In 2019, YVR saw an all-time record of 26.4 million passengers after years of staggering growth. Before the pandemic, it was on track to reach 31 million passengers by 2022.

While SEA has far greater overall passenger numbers than YVR, its international volumes are just 33% of YVR’s 12 million passengers annually, including nearly five million from the Asia-Pacific alone.

SEA’s busiest international route happens to be the one-hour, direct route to YVR, served by five major airlines, with over 600,000 passengers combined annually on these frequent flights.

In recent years, the governments of British Columbia, Washington State, and Oregon, supported by the private sector, have been studying the feasibility of building a high-speed rail line connecting Metro Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, as well as other major destinations between the segments. The segment between Metro Vancouver and Seattle could have a travel time of just one hour.

Preliminary studies suggest it could carry a construction cost of between USD$24 billion and USD$42 billion, with revenues covering costs by 2055 ā€” about two decades after completion and opening. An analysis of economic benefits forecast it would decrease the reliance on vehicle and air transportation between the cities, while creating new economic opportunities worth USD$355 billion and generate 200,000 new direct and indirect jobs.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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