Renton considers legal avenues for airport plan

The city is looking at how it can combat the FAA’s masterplan requirements

After months of pushback from airport tenants and businesses, the city wants to weigh its options on the Airport Master Plan update— a long arduous process in compliance with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that has called for a significant extension and widening of the airport’s runway and surrounding safety area in an location with limited available property.

The city, with financial support from Boeing, will now be contracting an attorney to see if it can combat the safety designation that calls for this runway extension.

“We wouldn’t be good stewards of the airport if we didn’t at least go this far,” Renton Mayor Armondo Pavone said.

Questioning the process

The airport was reclassified after takeoffs of Renton Boeing-made 737s at Renton airport exceeded 500 operations a year. The 500 number includes takeoffs and landings, and does not consider if it is a majority of one type more than another.

In early summer 2019 the master plan consultants Mead and Hunt presented the community with the landside plan alternatives, which looked at how the runway must be extended either east or west. Before that, in February 2019, Renton City Council selected a preferred airside plan alternative, as previously reported in Renton Reporter, which looked at how the runway must be extended either north or south.

Both Councilmember Randy Corman and Pavone said the new safety designation was not initially presented to council as something to be questioned, but the landside plan and its alternatives made it clear that hangars, airplane tie downs, the seaplane dock and base would all face at least some loss of property with the plans.

Washington State Seaplane Pilots Association President Stephen Ratzlaff has spoken at several city council meetings about the impact this safety designation would have on the seaplane base. He said Renton’s base is one of the only ones where a plane can switch from floats to wheels within a few thousand miles, since it also has a runway.

Corman start attending the Renton Airport Advisory Committee (RAAC) meetings in 2019. Once he did, he also began to advocate for looking at changes to the safety designation and posted about it in a blog in July 2019, as previously reported in Renton Reporter.

The master plan was meant to be completed by end of 2019 but was slowed down after a federal grant funding the consultant on the plan expired. Since late 2019, airport tenants have been publicly calling for the city to reconsider the assumptions about safety zones made in the master plan processes. Pavone said at his council meeting as mayor that this was an issue he wanted to be briefed on.

City announces next step to airport community

Challenging this designation is a big win, Corman said.

Corman announced the city’s plan to seek outside legal counsel at the Feb. 11 RAAC meeting. He explained that Boeing would be partially funding the legal expert and members at the meeting also offered to raise money for the city’s effort. The Renton Airport is an enterprise fund that operates financially independent from the city general budget, similar to Maplewood Golf Course.

Washington State Seaplane Pilots Association President Stephen Ratzlaff said that the association has been impressed with council and the mayor’s attentiveness to their concerns. He said that the announcement was met at the RAAC meeting with enthusiasm that it was being taken seriously. He said the association will also be contributing to funding the legal counsel.

Both Pavone and Corman emphasized that this is not an effort to forego safety standards at the Renton airport. Both believe the airport is in a one-of-a-kind circumstance, with special takeoff procedures for the 737s built in Renton that already offer extreme caution: including less weight and fuel on board then a normal takeoff, no additional passengers and taking off over the water. The safety airport that the newly built planes land is not even Renton, planes meant to fly to Boeing field in the event of a safety concern, Pavone said.

Right before the announcement, airport tenants released a “Renton Airport and Seaplane Base White Paper” regarding the safety of the Renton airport. Raztlaff said about 10 to 15 people contributed to the report, including former FAA employees that now work at different small businesses or operate small aircraft out of Renton airport.

Renton Airport and Seaplane Base White Paper by Haley Ausbun on Scribd

The 15-page white paper details Renton’s safety record for 737 departures, and the special procedures used. It also argues that the incremental safety measure is not worth the hundreds of millions of dollars and businesses lost with the safety designation. The writers also found no basis for the 500 operations threshold and considered it an “arbitrary” measurement of risks.

Pavone said he believes everyone involved, including the FAA, want to improve safety without putting the seaplane base and others out of business.

The city doesn’t have the capacity to start a major legal battle with the FAA. Corman believes the city will be able to reverse the safety designation, and that the solution to come from the contracted attorney will be technical, not legal. At this point, Corman said, he believes they just haven’t had the right people who could review the standards in relation to Renton’s “unusual circumstance.” The FAA and airport staff have previously told community members that the safety designation couldn’t be changed.

“We need more scientists and engineers to review this before we make this change,” Corman said.

Corman and Pavone both said that the city wants to handle the situation legally and not threaten any of its compliance with the FAA. Failure to comply could result in a loss of critical airport grants.

Pavone and Council President Ruth Pérez will be traveling to Washington D.C. to advocate for Renton at the nation’s capital. Pavone hopes they might be able to get the issue to the attention of FAA folks during the trip. His hope is that the city can get the attention of major players involved, and see if there is another path that Renton, an airport he said is unlike any other in operations, can take.

Corman said for those in the community who feel that they don’t care for noisy airplanes anyway, or would not care what happened to the airport, that extending the runway would not be beneficial to them either.

“Extending the runway would not make the community happier,” Corman said. “Once the FAA spends $100 million expanding the airport, it could quickly get out of Renton’s hands what new uses might come to that airport. (The city) would find it very difficult to prevent (even more airport activity) from happening.”

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Courtesy of Armondo Pavone.

Courtesy of Armondo Pavone.

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