Will Southwest's Noise Plan Fly at Boeing Field?

Aug. 24--Southwest Airlines flew more than 22,400 flights in and out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport last year. Most of the time, the discount carrier avoided neighborhoods, finishing fifth among 23 airlines in the airport's noise-reduction competition.

But the 2,921 Southwest flights that did go over noise-sensitive neighborhoods raise questions about how many flights the airline could really send over Elliott Bay should a move to Boeing Field be approved.

Sending flights over the water, a plan announced by Southwest on Monday, would reduce airplane noise for people in Queen Anne and Magnolia.

"While I appreciate the promise, it's not a contractual agreement yet," said Metropolitan King County Council chairman Larry Phillips, D-Magnolia, an opponent of the proposed move. "The fact of the matter is until that's enforced by contract and also a significant change by the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], and our operations at Boeing Field, it doesn't mean very much."

Southwest announced Monday it would work to ease neighborhood noise concerns by flying the quietest airplanes available, routing arriving flights over the water, and not scheduling any "red-eye" nighttime flights. The airline said its routes would pass between Magnolia and West Seattle unless safety concerns required pilots to approach a different way.

Despite that promise, a Sims spokesman said yesterday that if Southwest were to fly a different route than the one it says it will fly, county officials would have no recourse.

"The ultimate arbiter of those issues is the FAA," Sandeep Kaushik said.

Southwest spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said Southwest is "a company of our word." And she said the company would be willing to agree in a contract to request the over-water, satellite-guided approach every time its planes landed at Boeing Field from the north. The company believes weather would prevent approaches over the bay less than 10 percent of the time.

Although the FAA approves flight plans, FAA Operation Support Specialist Barry Davis said it's up to individual pilots to choose a route into the airport. At Boeing Field, their choices always include the simplest and most precise route from the north: over a radio beacon at the base of the Magnolia Bridge, Davis said.

A look at traffic around the airport on a typical day shows that even though Boeing Field encourages pilots to fly less-intrusive routes over the water and West Seattle, most pilots choose to approach the airport straight on -- zooming over Magnolia.

Southwest's announcement came a day before a group of local business and neighborhood associations announced the formation of the Sound Air Alliance to oppose the plan for county-owned Boeing Field.

"There's been a lot of voices out there popping up in opposition ... and it was like, let's get this all together," said Scott Ingham, Seattle Chamber of Commerce spokesman.

Besides the chamber, the alliance includes Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, the Magnolia Community Club, the Washington Roundtable, and a neighborhood group called Friends of Boeing Field.

Kaushik attributed the alliance to an effort by the Port of Seattle, which owns Sea-Tac Airport, to boost the appearance of opposition to Southwest's proposal.

"They're sort of turning this into a turf war," he said. He stressed that Sims has not made a decision about the proposal and won't agree to anything that doesn't address residents' concerns about noise and traffic.

Sea-Tac spokesman Bob Parker said the Port is not part of the alliance. Although it was asked to join, he said, "we needed to maintain a separate voice."