A Flight From Hell
Airplanes move us, our economies, and harmful pollutants up and around — but what goes up must come down
Fall is upon us and so Interplace transitions to economics. I’ll be writing about how location, distribution, and the spatial organization of economic activities interacts with and affects humanity. The current dominant economic model insists on persistent and endless growth despite acknowledgement of its role in climate change, income inequality, and disappearing limited stocks of natural resources. There’s got to be a better way, and I’m on the hunt to find alternatives.
As interactors, you’re special individuals self-selected to be a part of an evolutionary journey. You’re also members of an attentive community so I welcome your participation.
Please leave your comments below or email me directly.
Now let’s go…
FLIGHTS OF NASTY
I attended a panel discussion last Friday on environmental justice. One panel member represented a nearby Seattle community called Beacon Hill. It’s a 6.5 mile long stretch just north of the SeaTac airport putting it on a flight path. Roughly 65% of flights land over Beacon Hill when the wind is out of the south.1 During busy times, a plane descends over their homes nearly every 90 seconds to two minutes. And because it’s on a hill, they’re 300 feet closer to the noise and pollution.
FAA guidelines require a 65-decibel limit, and Sea-Tac claims they comply, but Beacon Hill is beyond the boundary for which they monitor.2 Even the U.S. Bureau of Transportation and Statistics reported in 2017 levels in this area were between 40-75 decibels. When residents organized and measured noise themselves, they never recorded any plane below 50 decibels and some hit 80. That’s about as loud as a kitchen blender and too loud to hear the person next to you.
But what this panel member shared, sometimes through tears, is it’s not just the noise but the repetition. With each passing plane the stress mounts in anticipation of the next one. It’s hard to concentrate or hold a conversation. She worries about her son. How much does this environmental stress contribute to his ADHD? His trouble at school. Her husband, who rides his bike most places, suffered from esophageal cancer. How much did the air pollution contribute to his condition?
In the time between planes, the ultrafine particles (UFPs) from the last plane have already mixed with the air they breathe.3 Jet engines uniquely expel plumes of ultrafine particle pollution. A recent University of Washington (UW) study confirms similar studies in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, New York, and Amsterdam. Flight paths are home to high concentrations of ultrafine particles raining down over unsuspecting victims. In Los Angeles, 90% of school children in the flight path are exposed to these particulates one hour out of every school day.
These particulates are smaller than the PM2.5 typically found from fossil fuel combustion and tire and brake dust. They’re also not as widely studied. Nobody really knows what kind of long-term effects they may have on the human body. However, there is animal evidence showing long-term exposure to ultrafine particles leads to adverse health effects, including neurological. A 2019 study published by the Washington State Department of Health reports,
“UFPs have many unique qualities that make them possibly more harmful to human health than larger particles. UFPs are able to travel deeper into the lung than larger particles. They are also small enough to avoid the body’s attempts to clear particles from the lungs, allowing them to stay in the body longer, to build up, and to cause damage. They can also move from the lungs to the bloodstream and to other organs.”4
Evidence of short-term effects on human health are conclusive. The study warns,
“Certain groups of people are more sensitive to UFP exposure. These groups include people with pre-existing heart and lung disease, infants, older adults, people with diabetes, communities with a lower socio-economic status, and pregnant women.”
Beacon Hill is a place where 70% of residents identify as Black, Indigenous, multiracial, or persons of color. More than half speak a language other than English. They’re also flanked by two major interstates and have another smaller airport, King County International Airport (KCIA) (aka Boeing Field), between them and Sea-Tac. The UW study showed anyone living within 150 meters of the freeway would also be exposed to ultrafine particles from passing vehicles, especially semi-trucks on their way to and from Sea-Tac.
In 2021, the Puget Sound Regional Council published a Regional Aviation Baseline Study. There are 27 public-use airports in Western Washington’s Puget Sound region, and the three biggest are Sea-Tac, King County International Airport, and Paine Field just north of Seattle. Scheduled passenger service is only available at Sea-Tac and Paine Field. In 2018 these two airports served 24 million enplanements. One enplanement is a single passenger per airplane. By 2027 they project this number will grow to 29 million. By 2050 it will double, 49 million at the low end and 56 million at the high end.5
That’s just commercial passenger traffic. What about cargo? In 2017 540 thousand metric tons of cargo flew through Western Washington. Eighty-five percent goes through Sea-Tac. By 2050, it too is projected to double to 1.5 million metric tons.6 However, these peak loads are seasonal. During harvest time, Washington State’s value crops, like cherries, increase cargo demands. So how is this increased demand to be met?
FLYING TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN
To assess solutions to growing demand, the 2019 Washington State Legislature formed the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC). Their objective is to recommend a new primary commercial aviation facility and additional ways to add capacity to six existing airports across the state to accommodate future demand.
To get an idea for how governments intend to shape outcomes of commissions they assemble, it’s good to look at the backgrounds of invited commissioners. In an era of increased awareness and needs for environmental, economic, and social justice, a good commission should be comprised of a diverse set of points of view and expertise. Especially given the current and historical economic, social, and environmental injustices existing power structures have created.
Through this lens, the list of commissioners is disappointing. Of the fourteen voting members, there are just two women, one person of color, and only one has a background in environmental law. The rest are white men, with one of Asian decent raised in England. Their bios read like a who’s-who of business leaders, economic development advisors, aviation enthusiasts, airport directors and developers, military leaders, and even representatives from Southwest and American Airlines. One member offered no bio at all and seemingly has no presence on the internet.
The remaining twelve non-voting members must then balance this majority of aviation zealots geared toward economic development. Nope. More of the same – former senators, regional transportation directors, air cargo specialists, a member of the Civil Air Patrol, an aviation officer…the list goes on. They do have a state senator, Tina Orwall, who has “20 years of experience working in the public mental health system.”
So, two people out of 26, an environmental lawyer and a left-leaning woman senator, may offer a voice for environmental justice and sustainable economic development. The rest will be fighting for state and federal dollars for airport and economic expansion. While public documents give lip service to ‘community engagement’ and ‘the environment’ history shows there is little likelihood this collection of people will have environmental justice as a top priority.
Every level of government wants the number of flights to increase, despite having goals to reduce carbon emissions. With increased flight traffic comes increased ground traffic, despite also having goals to reduce congestion. If this weren’t so tragic, it would be a comedy.
This is the essence of environmental justice; the unfair exposure of poor and marginalized people and places to harms associated with an economy these people and places are least responsible for – an economy which disproportionately benefits the prosperous and mainstream members of society. It’s an economic model, to which we’re addicted, requiring unlimited growth despite relying on the extraction of natural resources which are limited.
The environmental scientist, complex systems icon, and author of Limits of Growth, Donella Meadows, offers a series of questions these commissioners and elected leaders should ask whenever arguments for economic growth are put forth. She said,
“Growth is one of stupidest purposes ever invented by any culture. We’ve got to have enough. Always ask: growth of what and why, and for whom, and who pays the cost, and how long can it last, and what’s the cost to the planet, and how much is enough?”
Meadows, and many environmental justice activists and scholars, are calling for system change in the fight against climate change.
Reading Washington State’s plans for addressing its aviation woes, it’s clear system change is not on their radar. If Washington’s economy were a plane, elected leaders and assigned commissioners believe this plane can climb to infinite heights.
Imagine a plane gradually ascending beyond its physical limits and the bodily limits of its passengers. Now imagine cries to pilots to please level-off from suffering passengers first and most impacted. They’d be met with quizzical looks and ignored while most passengers would gleefully encourage the plane to climb faster and higher. That’s what it’s like when individuals in impacted communities cry and call for limits on the pain, suffering, and pollution at the hands of our economy.
Apart from a few local elected officials, they mostly are ignored. Most are too busy trying to grow the economy. Which in turn will increase the number of flights to Sea-Tac, the area’s economy, suffering, and the number of premature deaths due to air and noise pollution. Meanwhile, many Beacon Hill residents are too busy holding multiple jobs, too weary from the fight for justice, and too disempowered or discouraged to speak up.
The assembled aviation and business experts no doubt have good intentions, but it’s clear they’re tasked with one thing: tip the nose of the economic plane upwards while steadily increasing the throttle. After all, the model dictates that the state must remain competitive in a national and international race upwards toward a misleadingly infinite extractive consumer economy. This assumes there is no limit to growth despite empirical planetary evidence to the contrary. What’s the worse that could happen? Evidently, so far, nothing bad enough to prompt leaders to change the system.
To be fair, this commission and the Puget Sound Regional Council, do consider the air quality studies out of the University of Washington. They also consider another UW study exploring alternative ground transportation, including high-speed rail. There are other ‘sustainable’ elements the state is exploring, including biofuel and electric planes. However, creating a pipeline of biofuel to Sea-Tac they admit has its own challenges. Though, they pale in comparison to the struggles sourcing enough biofuel to meet demand. So that leaves electric planes, like electric cars, as the great savior.
ANOTHER INLAND LOGISTICS EMPIRE
Just this week, the dream of electric flight made one stride toward reality. A prototype of an electric nine-seater passenger plane successfully took off, circled the airport, and landed. A Washington first and a necessary first step toward certification. The plane was assembled in Washington state, made of engines and parts largely made in Washington state, and by a Washington state company called Eviation. Their CEO, Greg Davis, said “What we’ve just done is made aviation history. This is about changing the way that we fly. It’s about connecting communities in a sustainable way…ushering in a new era of aviation.”7 He may be right. But when?
When asked if this flying equivalent of a large Tesla, with 21,500 battery cells accounting for half of the plane’s weight of over 4 tons, is ready for passenger flights, he quipped, “The answer is no, absolutely not.” At least he’s honest. I optimistically believe some of our regional transportation problems can be solved by sustainably leveraging the thousands of municipal airports under-utilized across America. But it’s decades away.
Meanwhile, I believe this flight was mostly a PR stunt. The airport chosen for this historic flight was the Grant County International Airport at Moses Lake. Until this flight, most of Washington state didn’t know there was even an airport at Moses Lake. But it’s one of the top choices by the commission for expansion and they’ll need public support to pay for it.
Back in 2016 a group of senators formed a ‘roundtable’ to examine the growing air cargo industry. This is what eventually became the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission. They noted, “The top five air cargo commodities through Sea-Tac are cherries, seafood, footwear parts, aerospace components, and aluminum alloy and graphite.” All of these serve the Washington economy except for footwear parts which likely serves Nike and the footwear economy in Portland.
Knowing back then Sea-Tac had reached capacity, the attention turned to Eastern Washington. A Spokane roundtable member offered they had “Plenty of capacity and land reserved…to be developed for cargo…”, but then asked “How do we make strategic corrections?” There was a recognized need to make Eastern Washington attractive to air cargo carriers. Building or expanding alone doesn’t lead to success, you need private companies to believe it will succeed. Enter Moses Lake and the Grant County International Airport.
Ideas were thrown out. “Cold storage [for locally grown produce…like cherries and apples]…may be an incentive.” They imagined cargo planes could “Park in Moses Lake then” rail and trucks could “go back and get cargo.” They imagined “This would help open the runways in Sea-Tac,” but wondered “Would this financially work?” Before concluding the ‘roundtable’ they agreed they needed “to hear from businesses and companies.”
So, they commissioned the ‘Joint Transportation Committee’ to conduct a “study of air cargo movement at Washington airports” with a 2018 deadline. In that 2018 report seven airports were identified as targets for expansion, including the Grant County International Airport at Moses Lake which is right smack between Spokane and Seattle…and close to nearby produce.
In 2018, a “Washington State Air Cargo Movement Study” offered this as a recommendation:
“To attract the logistics/distribution market, the State of Washington should promote to individual airports the “inland port” or airport logistics park model…branding themselves ‘Global Logistics Centers.’”8
This reminds me of a piece I wrote last year about Southern California’s ‘One Click Buy’ Empire. Moreno Valley, California is building out a World Logistics Center. Forty-five percent of the nation’s imports are already trained, trucked, or flown into this “Inland Empire”, unpacked, sorted, and reloaded onto trains, trucks, and planes then fanned out again across the nation. California’s South Coast Air Quality District estimates the new logistics center will add an additional 30,000 heavy-duty trucks to area roads per day.
Heavy-duty diesel trucks emit 24 times more fine particulate matter than regular gasoline engines.9 Those living closer to the freeways will be affected more. And we all know who lives next to freeways…predominantly poor and people of color. Just like in Beacon Hill.
This last August the state conducted a survey across six counties in Western Washington seeking input on potential expansion and brand-new airports around the Puget Sound region. From 56-77% of participants, depending on county, said ‘No’ to new airports. Only Paine Field received support for expansion averaging 58% in favor.10
Environmental concerns are the overwhelming reason for why people oppose more airports or airport expansion. It seems everyone who can afford it wants cheap and available flights, next day deliveries, and fresh Washington cherries. And those lucky enough to have a 401K or stock portfolio want the market and the economy to grow, grow, grow. But nobody wants more flights or more pollution. That’s particularly true for those already suffering from environmental injustices – like those in Beacon Hill and countless other homes in the path of jets jettisoning plumes of particulate pollution. Far flung fumes consumed by our lungs triggering affects unknown.
How do we change this system so we all can prosper under economic vitality while minimizing the negative environmental and socio-economic impacts? If we’re going to grow, what are we growing and why? For whom? Who pays the cost? How long can it last? What’s the cost to the planet? How much is enough?
This is what I intend to explore throughout this fall as I unpack what I believe to be the front runner for a new economic model: the circular economy. I’ll look at not just the theory but attempts to put it into practice. Perhaps our economy can be like the journey of an airplane after all – take off, level off, land, take off, level off, land – an infinite circle flown within the limits of the plane, the earth, and its occupants.
Mobile ObserVations of Ultrafine Particles: The MOV-UP study report. University of Washington Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences. 2019.
Can Beacon Hill win the fight for quieter skies and a healthier neighborhood? Crosscut. Manola Secaira. 2019.
First all-new, electric commuter airplane takes flight at Moses Lake. Dominic Gates. Seattle Times. 2022.
Washington State Air Cargo Movement Study. Washington State Joint Transportation Committee. 2018.
Warehouses, Trucks, and Pm 2.5: Human Health and Logistics Industry Growth in the Eastern Inland Empire. Randall A. Bluffstone and Brad Ouderkirk. 2007.
Online Open House and Virtual Public Meeting report. Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission. 2022.