Southwest Plan Fuels Free-Enterprise Debate

Aug. 15--Southwest Airlines is accustomed to a little more adulation than the airline received when it announced its plan last month to move its Puget Sound-area operations from Sea-Tac Airport to Boeing Field.

In many communities, Southwest's presence means lower airfares, more frequent service and the end of a legacy carrier's monopoly grip on a community.

And though Southwest promised to spend $130 million of its own money to build a terminal and parking garage at Boeing Field, and to more than double the number of its flights, the proposal met with near-universal disdain.

The Seattle Chamber of Commerce condemned it. King County Council members threatened to stop it. Seven members of the Washington congressional delegation called the plan foolish. Seattle community groups from Magnolia to Alki said the airline's plan and the noise from its planes were unwelcome.

The hometown airline, Alaska, said the plan was unfair. Eastern Washington communities complained the traffic diversion would threaten feeder airline service to their towns. And the Port of Seattle, Sea-Tac's owner, said the move could portend financial distress.

Throughout the still-brewing controversy, Southwest's one steadfast friend has been King County Executive Ron Sims.

Sims, a liberal Democrat who is running for his third term as executive, seems to thrive on controversy -- whether it involves his unflagging dedication to controversial Sound Transit, his defense of his elections department executives in the face of a botched vote count or his choice of the 32nd floor of a downtown skyscraper for his offices.

To the affable 57-year-old executive, the whole dust-up over the possibility of Southwest's move to Boeing Field is surprising -- particularly in light of the business community's usual ardent desire to let free enterprise operate without the fetters of government. He sat down with The News Tribune to discuss the issues.

QUESTION: Who, besides Southwest and yourself, wants this move to happen?

ANSWER: The average person is on our side. My job is to represent the fullness of the public interest. The public wants low-cost airfares, and they don't want any tax money spent at the airport.

Q: But the Port of Seattle, Alaska Air Group, members of the congressional delegation and even the Chamber of Commerce oppose it.

A; As a government official, I'm always told to get government out of the way of the free-enterprise system. But what do they want? They want government to stand in the way of the free-enterprise system. And that's remarkable to me.

If I were a company looking to locate here and watching this debate, I would not believe that we are an area that embraces the free-enterprise system. It's a fundamental attack on free enterprise.

Q: The Port of Seattle says the move would raise expenses for the airlines remaining at Sea-Tac. How can this move be good for the traveling public?

A: The Port of Seattle was anticipating charging airlines $25 a ticket for using Sea-Tac, and as a result of our discussions with Southwest, they've reduced that to $14. So competition worked. Competition has already been a savings to the public and a substantial cost avoidance to the airlines.

The thing that amazes me is how easy the airport did it. They never had to operate in an environment that was sensitive to competition at all. They had a captured audience and they could pass on the costs to the passengers.

Q: As a champion of Sound Transit, are you concerned when the Port of Seattle says Southwest's move could jeopardize light rail getting to the airport?

A: What they're doing is hostage-taking. It's inappropriate. The port is committing a nominal amount to getting Sound Transit to the airport. The ironic thing is the port can't find money for a replacement road at the airport to clear the way for Sound Transit, but they've found a lot of money to take a waterfront trolley out to (the West Seattle offices of the biotech company) Amgen. I have no doubt they could make it happen.

Q: Can Southwest deliver what it promises?

A: We're evaluating that. But here's a company whose business model has allowed them to provide the lowest-cost airfare in the United States even though they're highly unionized.

People were very derisive of their model when they first started, but they've stuck with their business model, and they've had 59 consecutive quarters of being profitable. No other airline can match that.

They anticipated fuel costs rising. They were the only major airline not to lay off employees after 9/11 and they continue their orders for an all-Boeing fleet. So I look and I say, "Wow, I'm fascinated with this."

Q: Does that mean you'll be biased in favor of Southwest?

A: I don't favor either side. I'm an MVP flier on Alaska. I think that the obligation I have is to make the best decision on behalf of the taxpayers and people who pay airfare and to make sure we have a competitive environment here.

I don't fly Southwest, ironically. I tell people I am 57 years of age and I like aisle seats. I like the certainty of an aisle seat. And I can't get that with Southwest.

Now my sons, who are younger, much thinner and earn a lot less money, they can fly Southwest to LA in a middle seat or a window seat. To them, it's just cheap. To me, it's comfort.

Q: What happens now?

A: We're still evaluating their proposal. We have said there are two issues we have to resolve comfortably even before the environmental impact proposal, and those are traffic and noise.

Q: Neighborhood groups have complained that Southwest's flights will create noise pollution. What can be done?

A: We're concerned about noise, too. We've insisted on a fly-over-water pattern, and Southwest has agreed. That will help reduce the noise in Magnolia. Georgetown will always be a challenge for us because it will always be a neighborhood surrounded by an industrial area and next to an airport that's been there for 78 years.


--What: Move all Southwest Airlines' Puget Sound flights to Boeing Field

--When: 2009

--Why: To save money on airport fees

--How: Southwest would build a $130 million terminal at Boeing Field at no cost to King County.

--Expansion: Southwest would increase its flight schedule from 38 flights a day now to 85 flights a day at Boeing Field.

--Who Decides: King County government, which owns Boeing Field