Electric Aircraft Could Make Yakima Viable Option for Expansion, Airport Director Says

April 24, 2023

Apr. 21—ELLENSBURG — In his prior job, new Yakima Air Terminal Director Rob Hodgman was deeply involved in efforts to relieve crowding at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. This week, he provided reasoning on why Yakima could help the situation.

He believes electric aviation will soon be a game changer for his industry, and that those aircraft can transport people from nearly all corners of Washington state to the centrally-located Yakima airport. From there, larger-sized aircraft can take them to their destinations across the country.

Hodgman's proposal and other benefits of a regional airport in Yakima were discussed Wednesday by the Washington State Transportation Commission as it met in Ellensburg. Commission members and staff were impressed with the forward-looking plan.

"As a pilot, I could see going to my local airport and flying to Yakima instead of driving to SeaTac," said Roy Jennings, a Clark County resident and chair of the transportation commission. "I can see the benefits."

Reema Griffith, executive director of the transportation commission, said the multi-modal aspect of Hodgman's proposal appealed to her, as it would bring passengers to and from Yakima by road, rail and air.

"That's the beauty of electric aviation: 30 to 45 minutes and you're in Yakima," Hodgman said. "You just have to have a general aviation airport."

'Puget Sound situation'

Before laying out details of flying people across Washington state into and out of Yakima for longer flights, Hodgman discussed the current and future status of electric aviation — a key element to his proposal for Yakima Air Terminal.

For the past three years, the state's Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission, soon to be replaced with another state Legislature-approved work group, has been seeking sites for a built-from-scratch regional airport as SeaTac nears its capacity for passengers and freight.

Eventually, three greenfield sites (not necessarily vacant, open land, but property which could be developed into an airport) were selected as finalists: two in Pierce County and another in Thurston County.

All three sites faced extensive opposition from cities, county government and thousands of residents, prompting the Legislature to restart the entire process via House Bill 1791, which was approved last week and awaits Gov. Jay Inslee's signature.

Before beginning his job in Yakima on March 16, Hodgman was an aviation senior planner for the Washington State Department of Transportation, where his duties included serving as a nonvoting member of the CACC.

He and others on the CACC learned that SeaTac is expected to max out its capacity at roughly 67 million annual passengers in 2030, By 2050, air passenger traffic in the Seattle region is expected to increase to 94 million annual passengers, leaving a capacity shortfall of 27 million passengers, WSDOT estimates.

Hodgman said he dealt directly with individuals and groups opposed to the Pierce County and Thurston County sites, and they consistently had three requests for a new regional airport.

"The public wants to expand an existing airport, they want it built to meet capacity in an environmentally sustainable way, and they want to maximize (passenger) travel by rail," he said. "The Puget Sound situation (of airport opposition) is going to continue to be a very challenging one."

Electric aviation

That is where both the Yakima airport and the rapidly developing technology of electric aviation can be part of Washington's air travel solution, Hodgman believes.

He said congestion at SeaTac and Everett's Paine Field is not just a "west side" problem, as many of the state's airports, including Yakima, send all or the majority of their passengers to SeaTac to connect with other flights.

If nothing is done, by 2050 there will be 27 million Washingtonians who will be unable to travel by air to other destinations, and that number includes residents from across the state, Hodgman said.

In January, Yakima city council members sent a letter to state transportation officials asking that the city be considered as a solution to the SeaTac overcrowding, and Hodgman spelled out how electric-powered aircraft can make that happen on Wednesday.

In September, a nine-passenger electric prototype aircraft named Alice that can carry up to nine passengers made its maiden flight, taking off and landing in Moses Lake, the Seattle Times reported.

Designed in Arlington by Eviation, Alice is expected to have a range of 290 miles by 2027, Hodgman said.

Another model in development, the Heart Aerospace ES-30, is being designed and manufactured in Sweden. Hodgman said it can carry 30 passengers, which requires two pilots, and would have a range of 125 if powered solely by electric batteries, and 250 miles if powered by hybrid engines. It is expected to be ready by 2028.

With a range of 200 miles, electric- or hybrid-powered aircraft from all but two of the state's general aviation airports could reach Yakima, Hodgman said. An expansion of its runway from the current 7,604-foot length to 9,600 feet would allow large aircraft including 757s to arrive and depart from Yakima, taking those passengers from outlying airports to other domestic locations.

Commission members and its director, Griffith, asked Hodgman how long it would take the EV airplane industry to develop and produce enough planes to make his plan feasible, considering it is in its infancy.

He replied that the 10- to 15-year timeline would roughly match the number of years until western Washington airports run out of capacity.

"The timing is just about right with when SeaTac and Paine Field need this," Hodgman said.

As they celebrated their aircraft's maiden flight last September, Eviation officials told the Seattle Times they hope to sell EV planes to operators flying passenger routes between 200 and 300 miles — potentially filling in the gaps of the current major airline networks with direct service between smaller airports.

"Every airport of any size, any municipal airport, becomes viable," Eviation CEO Greg Davis told The Times.

Davis also said Eviation needs still-to-be-developed advances in battery technology to make its planes commercially viable, and admitted those advances could still be five years away.

Potential roadblocks

Even if the electric aviation industry develops quickly, Hodgman said there are several potential problems with his proposal.

Significant investment and expansion would be needed at the Yakima airport, including building a 24-gate terminal that could handle 7.5 million annual passengers. While preliminary planning is underway for replacing the 1950s-era passenger terminal, a much larger facility with a new configuration would be needed if Yakima became a regional airport.

Additional property would need to be purchased, moving the airport's size from 825 to 1,200 acres, and direct connections from Interstate 82 and the BNSF railway to the airport would need to be built, Hodgman said.

On the plus side, he noted the Yakima Air Terminal property already has more acreage than the San Diego airport, which serves 20 million annual passengers with its one 9,400-foot-long runway.

The arrival and departure timing of smaller electric aircraft and larger fuel-powered airplanes would create air traffic and taxing issues which would need to be overcome, Hodgman said. Additionally, the electric planes would need to be recharged before they could return passengers to other airports in Washington.

"There's a significant power demand at peak times — we would need to address that," he added.

Two potential solutions to the latter issue could be on-site airport electricity storage and charging on-site batteries during non-peak usage times, or with alternate energy sources such as solar or wind power, Hodgman said.

As for the potential of passenger rail connecting Yakima and the west side, it has been more than 40 years since passenger rail service was available to Yakima, and there are many steps to be taken before it can be resumed, Hodgman and others have noted.

While Hodgman admitted the airport improvements and technological advances his proposal needs are "going to take a while," he hoped it will provide another option for officials of the new airport siting work group as it considers solutions to the SeaTac capacity issue.

Yakima Mayor Janice Deccio and city council member Patricia Byers also testified before the commission, noting the economic benefits an airport expansion could provide to the community and potential benefits to the state.

"The initial community support has been solid," Deccio said, referring to a January online survey which showed more than 80% of respondents strongly supported expanding Yakima's airport.

Byers said the airport is in her council district, and she sees its potential expansion as a big economic opportunity for Yakima.

"We would like you to include Eastern Washington (as you consider) a statewide problem, and we would like to be part of the solution," Byers told the commission.

Contact Joel Donofrio at jdonofrio@yakimaherald.com.


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