Director Looking Forward at Sea-Tac

Oct. 31--In early June, Sea-Tac Airport Director Mark Reis was reveling in the warmth of positive public and media reaction to the opening of the airport's ambitious new Central Terminal project. That project restored views of airfield operations, hidden since the early '70s, through an expansive window wall in a central courtyard bordered with new shops and restaurants. It visibly brightened and added new life to a building that was beginning to show its age.

But a little more than a week later, Reis and the airport were the target of intense public scrutiny. A major airline tenant, Southwest Airlines, had proposed decamping to nearby, King County-owned Boeing Field.

The issue? The high costs of operating at Sea-Tac, where $4.2 billion worth of remodeling and renewal were adding costs for airlines already squeezed by high fuel prices. The debate raged all summer. Sea-Tac's number one tenant, Alaska Airlines, proposed to move dozens of flights to Boeing Field to counter Southwest's strategic move.

Ultimately, King County Executive Ron Sims pulled the plug on the proposals this month, saying the field wasn't big enough to handle both Southwest's and Alaska's flights.

But the questions raised by Southwest's dramatic proposal linger. Is Sea-Tac pricing itself out of the market? Do the airport's ambitious expansion and remodeling plans, framed in the '90s, fit today's tight-fisted airline environment?

Reis discusses his perspective on those questions with The News Tribune:

QUESTION: Now that Sims has closed the door on a Southwest Airlines move to Boeing Field, how are your relations with Southwest?

ANSWER: I think they're good. I have had several voice mail and e-mail exchanges and one conversation with them. But I think like oftentimes is the case in relationships, a little bit of time needs to pass.

Q: Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said the proposal to move was cost-driven. Do you believe that was the case?

A: I believe that their decision to try to move to Boeing Field was not just about costs. I don't know precisely why Southwest made their proposal to go to Boeing Field, but there are not many airports around the country where Southwest has, after 11 years, less than 8 percent of the market share (as they do at Sea-Tac).

I believe their strategy was to create an advantage by going to Boeing Field -- not just a cost advantage, but a branding advantage. They were going to use that branding advantage to try to steal a lot more market share.

My hat's off to them as a very well-run company with a very clear strategy. I don't begrudge them for thinking that they could better serve their shareholders by moving to Boeing Field.

Q: During the public debate about Southwest's proposal, some critics said Sea-Tac Airport had rightfully received a stern warning about inflated costs. Are those critics right?

A: The people who work here are incredibly smart and well-intentioned. Certainly if you were to read some of the stories, there are some suggestions that we were not good stewards of the public's money and that we made some stupid decisions and that we had some agenda other than serving the public need. And that's disappointing.

I'm quite proud of the job that we do keeping the right balance between keeping costs as low as possible with the need to build facilities.

Q: Those same critics pointed to the airport's new amenities and said the administration went overboard in creating a palace dedicated to air travel. What do you say?

A: I think the one thing we need to keep in mind is that we're building 50-year assets. Those assets will be in place long after the current airline financial crisis is over. So wherever we can, we defer expansion.

But if we must build something that's a gateway to the region, we need to do it right. It has to be sustainable. It has to meet the airlines' needs, and we're not going to have to replace it for 50 years or so.

There was a comment made during the discussion about Southwest that the restrooms in the new Central Terminal were nicer than the restrooms in the boardroom at Microsoft. Well, board members of Microsoft are not pulling carry-on luggage behind them.

And you don't have 28 or 30 million of them going through the restrooms every year. They don't have parents with children using them. We're building different things. We would be appropriately chastised if we built schlocky restrooms.

Q: Southwest mentioned it had just moved into a new concourse in Tampa that was built at a cost that was a fraction of the cost of Sea-Tac's new A Concourse. Why the difference in costs?

A: Not only did we have to take a terminal down, but we also had to take a hangar down and an additional maintenance building down. We had mitigation costs regarding airline contamination of the soils.

We built it right over the top of the subway tunnel. And we built an office structure. We added 300 feet of ticketing, and we rebuilt fully one-third of the airport's baggage system all for the number that they built just a straight, 16-gate terminal.

Q: Sea-Tac's controversial third runway will cost an estimated $1.2 billion. The airport's detractors say that runway, now under construction, is a waste of money. Has Southwest's challenge to your costs changed your mind about the need for that project?

A: There are times when the fog moves in and we are reduced to one stream of traffic (because the existing runways are too close together). There are very real costs attached to that especially with the high cost of fuel. The airlines will pay for the runway. They will more than pay for the runway in operating-cost savings.

Name: Mark Reis

Title: Director, Sea-Tac

Age: 54

Home: Ballard

Education: Bachelor's degree in environmental studies, Western Washington University; master's degree in public administration, Harvard University.

Career: Appointed airport managing director May 2004. Reis formerly served as the airport's deputy managing director and director of marine finance and business development for the Port of Seattle. Before joining the port in 1988, Reis was executive director of the Northwest Conservation Coalition and the Northwest Renewable Resources Center.


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