Seattle Airport Debate Similar to Wright Amendment Debate

In this case, the setting is Seattle, and the argument centers on whether Southwest will fly from sprawling Seattle-Tacoma Airport or the smaller King County Airport, also known as Boeing Field.

The case will seem quite familiar to North Texans: Southwest Airlines wants unfettered access to a small, alternative airport closer to the heart of the city.

Southwest executives say consumers will benefit. But officials with the bigger airport worry about losing flights and passengers, as well as financial damage.

A competing hub airline, the largest in town, vows to move flights as well, if necessary. Neighborhood groups voice concern about traffic and noise if the smaller airport expands.

But this particular airport debate doesn't concern Dallas /Fort Worth Airport, Dallas Love Field or the Wright Amendment, which bars flights from Dallas Love Field out of Texas. In this case, the setting is Seattle, and the argument centers on whether Southwest will fly from sprawling Seattle-Tacoma Airport or the smaller King County Airport, also known as Boeing Field.

"There are some similarities, aren't there," said Ron Ricks, senior vice president of governmental affairs for Dallas-based Southwest. "Both of these cases are about costs."

Analysts say it's part of a broader strategy to minimize costs and boost revenues now while the airline still has some protection from high fuel prices.

"Southwest sees where things are heading with oil prices, and they're battening down the hatches," said Mike Boyd, an airline consultant for the Boyd Group of Evergreen, Colo. "That means they have to get their costs down even more while they still can."

Unlike most airlines, Southwest can buy jet fuel at cheaper prices because of hedging contracts. But those contracts begin to expire over the next few years, and the airline's advantage will dwindle.

That means other costs must come down. It's nothing new for the airline -- Southwest is notorious for making the most of its assets. Its airplanes have among the highest productivity levels in the industry. Pilots fly more hours per day than those at other major carriers. Flight attendants clean airplane cabins between flights.

In North Texas and Seattle, Southwest is clearly trying to apply that strategy to the airports as well. The resolution could have a significant effect on the carrier's bottom line -- and how consumers in both communities travel.

Last month, King County officials stunned many in Seattle when they revealed that they had been discussing a potential move to Boeing Field with Southwest.

The airline flies out of Seattle-Tacoma, typically called Sea-Tac, with about 35 flights a day. The airline accounts for about 9 percent of the airport's market share.

But Southwest executives worry about the cost of flying from the airport, which is owned by the Port of Seattle. It costs the airline roughly $10 to $11 per passenger to fly from Sea-Tac, which makes it a relatively expensive airport.

But a host of expansion projects, including a new runway, is likely to boost that cost even further. By 2009, it could be as high as $25 per passenger, Ricks said.

"At those prices, it would be virtually impossible to be a low-fare airline and be profitable at Sea-Tac," he said.

So Southwest began looking around for alternatives. It found a potential savior at Boeing Field, which King County owns.

That airport hasn't had regular commercial service since the 1970s. But airport officials were excited about the prospects of landing Southwest.

"King County must explore such a once-in-a-generation opportunity," Ron Sims, the county executive, wrote in a letter to the county council chairman.

Ricks says that there could be a competitive advantage because Boeing is cheaper and is closer to Seattle's population base. It is just five miles from downtown, less than half the distance to Sea-Tac.

"The proximity to downtown is advantageous, from our standpoint," he said. "It suits our customer profile better."

The Port of Seattle has concerns. Area residents would be the big losers if Southwest moves to the smaller airport, said M.R. Dinsmore, the port's chief executive.

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