Regional Aviation Baseline Study - Frequently Asked Questions

Last Updated: 
Nov 12, 2020

Answers to questions that were asked about the Regional Aviation Baseline Study during the virtual public meetings.

Study Process and Next Steps

How will this study be used?

PSRC is a regional long-range planning agency and its Executive Board is overseeing this project. The study is expected to be used by airports who are creating new master plans, the State Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission, and other policy makers and sectors of the air travel industry as they plan for the future. The goal of this study is to provide a common understanding of the current status and projected demand for aviation in the region. This study will not recommend specific solutions to addressing demand.

How will noise and environmental impacts be evaluated and mitigated if commercial service in the region expands capacity to meet projected demand?

This study is simply a baseline. It does not propose solutions.  Without a specific recommendations, it is impossible for us to model noise impacts, community impacts, traffic, and other valid concerns that communities may share. Many of those impacts are localized. As airports update their master plans, they must consider and analyze these important community impacts. Should a greenfield site be one of the potential options that policy makers pursue, they will closely study those impacts and work with neighboring communities. So, if you’re seeing gaps in terms of community impacts, it’s because we don’t have a specific solutions or recommendations to model.  We must defer to individual airports to use their master planning process to make a determination that works for their communities.

How would airport expansion be financed?

A vast majority of airports in the U.S. are owned by local governments. Local taxpayers do not directly subsidize the airports. For example, the Port of Seattle, collects property taxes, but those property taxes are not used to subsidize the airport. Rather, each airport is operated as an enterprise fund based on charges to airlines, tenants and passengers. Airports must compete for federal dollars from the FAA to fund improvement projects, whether it’s renovating the terminal or repaving a runway. There are specific programs and limitations that apply to federal dollars and airport user fees, including fees on the airlines and passengers. As customers of the airport, we subsidize investments in the airport.

Has PSRC conducted any prior baseline studies?

PSRC was involved with several planning efforts in the late 1980s through the 1990s. Some aspects of those efforts were very similar to the work done for this baseline study, and some aspects were related to siting. The last time the region was confronted with a similar forecast to today’s alongside projected capacity challenges was during that timeframe.

Has PSRC cooperated with similar organizations in regions neighboring the central Puget Sound to study aviation demand?

The scope of this project includes the four-county region of King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties. PSRC includes representation from each of those counties and local communities within the counties; we’ll share information about this study with all of PSRC’s membership. Additionally, we are working closely and sharing this information with our partners at WSDOT’s aviation division as they lead the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission. The Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission looks beyond the four-county region and across Western and Central Washington.

Impacts of Aviation

How much do you expect the environmental impact of aviation to change by 2050?

Doubling aviation service by 2050 would not double environmental impacts as they are today because of changes in aviation standards and advances in technology, but we don’t know how much these changes will reduce aviation emissions and noise impacts. Each new generation of engine or aircraft is quieter and more efficient than the last. The aviation industry is making strides to reduce aircraft noise and increase fuel efficiency, and is also exploring new engine types, including electric aircraft and hydrogen engines. We cannot predict today when those technologies will come online.

Could you site an airport outside of dense urban areas where fewer people would be affected by impacts?

The big challenge with siting an airport outside of dense urban areas is finding a location with enough land –thousands of acres are needed to support an airport – a reasonable amount of community support, and proximity to jobs and population centers to allow access to the airport. For example, we’ve mentioned Denver International Airport as the only new greenfield airport built in the U.S. in the last several decades, and the airport is located quite far from downtown Denver. In the 1990s, before the decision to add a third runway at Sea-Tac, there were a number of planning efforts that looked at siting a new airport. At that time, many locations that were viewed as too remote would not be viable locations today because of population growth in those areas. The four airports that we identified in this study as meeting technical criteria required to expand all come with significant challenges. A greenfield site, like the one in Denver, would need to be located far away from people, jobs, and communities with the trade-off of a longer drive to access the airport.

How will you address specific impacts on neighborhoods and communities near airports that expand or begin offering passenger service?

This study looked at impacts generally, to the extent possible when studying a regional perspective, but did not identify specific neighborhood- or community-level impacts. The purpose of this study is to provide a baseline look at the region’s existing aviation infrastructure and forecast demand in 2050, not to propose specific solutions to address that demand. Without a specific site identified for increasing service, it’s very difficult to quantify specific impacts. If an airport sponsor made a decision to begin offering commercial service or expand capacity, that airport would work with its community through a master planning process to identify and analyze impacts.

Did the study consider the cost of health events caused by the aviation industry?

This report considers regional-level environmental and community impacts based on existing information, but because this study is not an environmental impact statement for a specific site, we could not evaluate the cost of health events with a high level of site-specific detail. Other studies in the region consider these issues, and the final report will include links to these relevant reports for more information.

Did the study analyze the impact of fine particulate matter to the health of communities around airports?

We recognize that these are important health impacts, and we take the issue seriously. This study provides information about the region’s existing aviation infrastructure and forecasted demand for 2050; it does not propose specific solutions to address that demand. Without a specific site identified for increasing service, we cannot model the related health impacts. The final report will include links to relevant studies, including a recent University of Washington study on air quality. Additional studies of community, noise, and pollution impacts would be conducted as part of environmental analysis for any future airport expansion.

Forecast

Did you consider different growth scenarios in forecasting demand?

The forecast in the study is unconstrained. We included a low and high range for demand for 2050. As we looked at the scenarios to meet different percentages of the demand, we used the high range of 55.6 million annual enplanements (boardings). The low forecast was 49.3 million enplanements.

Does the forecast differentiate between tourist, business, pleasure, and other aviation passengers?

No. The type of travel does not influence the forecast. It is based on historic factors, trends, and demographics. In our public opinion survey, we asked about type of travel to correlate types of travel with opinions on managing aviation demand.

What is the projected population growth for the region between now and 2050?

There are 4.2 million people living in the Puget Sound region today. We expect the population to grow to 5.8 million people by 2050.

Where is population growth expected to be highest?

Looking forward to 2050, we expect to see about half of the forecasted population growth in King County. Outside of the central part of the region, we expect 24% of growth to happen in Snohomish County, 21% in Pierce County, and 5% in Kitsap County.

What industries will grow to catalyze this increase in demand?

The IT and software industries will play a large role in increased demand, but we expect to see continued growth across all sectors.

How much of the forecasted demand could divert to high-speed rail?

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) studied high-speed rail between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. Most trips that would shift to rail come from car trips. High-speed rail would divert some existing air trips between Seattle and Portland or Seattle and Vancouver; based on WSDOT’s study, that diversion would be 65,000 to 135,000 trips out of a projected gap of 22 to 27 million annual enplanements (boardings).

How long will it take for aviation demand to return to pre-COVID-19 levels?

As of fall 2020, most forecasters are saying three-to-five or three-to-four years if a vaccine is developed and implemented in 2021. Most flights during the COVID-19 pandemic are leisure flights; there is very little business travel during the pandemic.

Given COVID-19’s impact on air travel, do you still expect the forecasted 55 million annual enplanements in 2050?

Yes. Over the long term, we’ve seen aviation demand steadily rise since the 1970s, both nationwide and at Sea-Tac, even with dips during events like recessions. There will certainly be a significant dip in 2020, but we do expect demand to return to pre-2020 levels and continue rising over the long term.

Current events can impact long-term forecasts. Since the start of this study, the pandemic has impacted how many people see the future of travel due to more people using things like virtual meeting platforms, and Boeing recently announced plans to move 787 production out of Washington state. How will you account for these changes?

PSRC forecasts 20 to 30 years into the future. We’re in a highly unusual period with profound impacts on the aerospace industry, but we study long-term trends. Since airline deregulation in the United States in the 1970s, we’ve seen air travel rates grow faster than the rate of population growth. Since the 1970s, the aviation industry has experienced dips during recessions, but trends have inevitably swung back. We acknowledge that this forecast was completed pre-COVID-19. We originally forecasted 2027 to be the year demand outpaced capacity; unless things come back very quickly, this marker will likely be later than 2027. Overall, we expect this 30-year forecast to remain consistent.

Technical Analysis of Scenarios

If service is dispersed across multiple airports, would there be a higher number of flights serving the same destinations, or would there be increased ground transportation to provide access between airports that serve different destinations in the Puget Sound region?

Most cities that have multiple commercial service airports have different airports that service different destinations. For example, in Los Angeles, Long Beach and John Wayne airports offer more regional service while Los Angeles International offers national and international service. In a multiple airport scenario, it’s likely that Sea-Tac would continue to provide more international service while smaller airports would likely provide more regional service. Some service might shift but it’s unlikely that airports would replicate service.

How are air traffic routes determined and can they be managed to help accommodate additional demand?

The FAA is responsible for managing rules and regulations to make sure we all have safe flights while also managing airspace. We looked at adding this amount of volume to airspace in the region and determined that, with the move to NextGen, the regional airspace can accommodate demand if it is managed properly.

How were air traffic routes considered in the technical analysis of different airports in the region?

In the technical analysis of airports in the region, we considered how additional service would conflict with existing airspace limitations, like existing service at Sea-Tac and geographic obstacles like Mount Rainier.

Why was adding a joint-use runway at McChord Air Force Base ruled out?

We applied the same technical criteria to McChord Air Force Base as we did to the rest of the airports in the region. McChord was ruled out because of ownership: Adding commercial air service to a military base facility comes with added complexity. There are a number of facilities in the United States that operate as a joint facility. Charleston, for example, provides both military and commercial service, and is home to a Boeing plant. Portland and Minneapolis are examples of large facilities that have National Guard components. Those are established facilities, though, and converting a military base to joint use and opening it up to the public is a very different process. Our final report will note some of the benefits and challenges to considering McChord. For example, McChord has a long runway and is close in proximity to jobs and population centers, but adding commercial services would be complex and require Department of Defense support as well as an act of Congress. We have toured the facility and are in touch with base leadership through the State’s Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission; there is a representative from the Department of Defense participating in the Commission.

How did you consider drive time and roadway and transit infrastructure when studying existing airports?

We considered drive time and roadway and transit infrastructure in the technical criteria applied to each airport in the region. Specifically, for each airport, we studied how much of the region could access that airport within a 60-minute drive today and in 2050. We also looked at existing roadway infrastructure and technical feasibility to improve that infrastructure, as well as existing transit access to the airport and, again, technical feasibility to provide or improve that service in the future.

Advances in Aviation Technology

How will advances in electric aircraft affect this forecast?

Studies to date show that electric aircraft are not practical for long ranges. We will likely see electric aircraft used for regional connecting flights. While demand will be the same whether passengers are flying in an electric or conventional aircraft, impacts from electric aircraft would be different than impacts from conventional aircraft. In terms of the environmental impacts discussed in this report, we studied what we know today because we can’t predict what new technology will be in place by 2050.

How will new techniques for airspace management affect this forecast?

There are two main techniques FAA is implementing that will affect airspace in the region. The first is NextGen, which is FAA’s new air navigation system that will allow more efficient routing. Second, Sea-Tac is on the list to be studied as a Metroplex. This is FAA’s effort to increase efficiency for airspace above metropolitan areas with congested or complex airspace.

Will new technology and procedures allow for more flights?

There are techniques being implemented now and in the future that would allow for more flights, such as FAA’s NextGen air navigation system. Other tactics, such as shifting flights out of peak period, are more challenging. The airlines need to be on board with any new tactic, and shifting flights out of peak periods, for example, is problematic because airlines want to meet demands for times that passengers will want to fly. A last resort would be a slot control system, where FAA limits the number of flights.

Paine Field

All scenarios assumed Paine Field maintained its current 24 flights per day. With expansion for the region to meet capacity, would there be expansion of more flights at Paine Field?

We looked at master plans for existing airports, including Paine’s which allows for 24 flights per day. Paine Field is one of the four airports we identified that meets technical criteria to go beyond its existing capacity. We are not suggesting or recommending that Paine Field, or any other airport in the region, expand. Any future expansion of service at Paine Field would be decided by the airport and Snohomish County.

What is Paine Field doing to update its master plan?

As of fall 2020, Paine Field is beginning the process to update its master plan. The master plan will consider a new terminal, but Paine Field and Snohomish County would need to consider many factors before planning any expansion.

How many flights is Paine Field considering adding?

Paine Field is just beginning the process to update its master plan. The environmental assessment from Paine Field’s last master planning effort allows 600,000 enplanements (boardings) per year, or roughly 24 flights per day. Paine Field only has two gates; this physical infrastructure is also a limitation. If Paine Field and Snohomish County want to increase capacity, they could study the consideration in the master planning process they are starting in 2020 or in the future.

What is the role of outside organizations, like PSRC, in the master plan process for Paine Field?

The master plan process primarily includes the FAA, Paine Field, and Paine Field’s airport sponsor, Snohomish County. The FAA is primarily concerned with the decisions made by the airport sponsor.

Regionally, what influences growth at Paine Field?

Airlines are private business; they aim to make a profit. Airlines choose the airports to fly out of, and destinations those flights will serve, based on demand. In the region, we are seeing demand for flights out of Paine Field especially for people who live further north and can avoid driving south to Sea-Tac if Paine offers a flight that meets their needs.