Hard Cap On Flights: A Proposal

Posted on Categories Airport

This is a proposal to address the noise and pollution problems in communities surrounding Sea-Tac Airport by establishing a hard cap on flights.

This idea is quite simple and also quite similar to the notion of salary caps in pro sports. The various stakeholders–including the community, would set a number of operations (flights) which is the daily maximum. There would also be a 4 hour nighttime quiet period. I suggest 1,000 as this gets us back to where we were in 2010, with a DNL less than 60dbA. I think this is extremely reasonable given the health risks, but it’s a start. The important thing is not the number of operations. Really, the important thing is the dbA level and the emissions tonnage. THOSE are the cap, but we do NOT make them part of the formula simply because they are way too subject to weaseling by various sets of stats. The number of operations, on the other hand, is simple.

Like a pro sports cap, the Port then sits down with all the airlines (team owners) and they negotiate how the pie gets sliced. It becomes THEIR problem.

Then, I would suggest 2 pot sweeteners:
1. The Port and airlines would get paid for reducing DNL (average noise over the course of a day). Eg. if they reduce the DNL 1dbA in a given year, perhaps they get ‘x’ million dollars more from the State, part of which they could kick back to airlines. This is one incentive to create interventions to improve facilities and equipment. There is also one other important incentive…

2. Every 5 years, when the Port publishes its big plan, the airlines could petition communities for an increase in operations–similar to the way public utilities petition the state for rate increases (By the way, most people don’t seem to know that under state law, the Port of Seattle is considered a public utility). If the Port and airlines demonstrate that they are able to fly more and still stay under the initial DNL and emissions cap, they win. But they have to prove they can do this by working on step #1 each year–ie. by continuing to incrementally lower the DNL and emissions tonnage. Put simply, as they become more green, they make more money.

(The reader may have noticed that this proposal also has one other very unique feature: for the first time it places the airport under a single element of community control: the number. Everything else remains the same.)

Another feature is that it puts the responsibilities for solutions to noise, emissions and capacity where they belong: with the Port of Seattle and the airlines. Until now, the public and the various government agencies have been wringing their hands trying to find solutions. But that’s not necessary. Just as with car companies and their fuel and emission standards, the Port and airlines would be free to develop innovations. In fact, they would be highly incentivized to be innovative; the faster they create quieter and cleaner systems, the more money they make. A win-win.

The only thing standing in the way of this sort of proposal is the notion that growth trumps public health. Every policy maker I have talked with thinks in terms of building more airports or installing new technologies. But these are ideas that will take decades to accomplish, all the while allowing the noise and pollution to increase, unabated, over the communities. The current system creates no incentives for the Port or the airlines to improve and puts the responsibility for change on the people least competent to make that change (ie. politicians).

I also believe that though airlines might initially scream bloody murder, they would not suffer as one might think. Having worked in Logistics, I am about 100% certain that they would find other ways to move people and cargo. They have decades of experience in dealing with these kinds of challenges. And remember, we’re not talking about shutting down Sea-Tac, we’re simply giving the airlines plenty of notice to develop other networks. And just like the car companies when fuel and pollution standards were developed? They would find a way. That’s American Ingenuity. I’m counting on it.

All that is necessary to start improving our health is to say “No Mas”. One thousand flights and no more. I believe that with this change in attitude; if we can stop letting the tail wag the dog, Sea-Tac can again be something that the surrounding communities can live with in harmony.