In his My Take essay [“This site has my vote for building a new airport,” Nov. 3, Opinion], Joseph Tipler suggests “adapting” McChord Airfield at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for civilian use to relieve overcrowding at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
He concludes his essay by noting that skeptics would cast a thousand criticisms at this idea. I would cast only one.
It won’t work.
The central problem is that McChord isn’t a stand-alone airfield. Tipler implies we could leave the Army side of JBLM as it is, and suggests the C-17 transport aircraft at the heart of the McChord airlift mission be relocated to, perhaps, Travis Air Force Base in California. We can then invite Alaska, Delta, United, American and all the other airlines at Sea-Tac to bring more flights and aircraft to the South Sound, build new terminals for passengers, and go on our merry way having solved the problem.
Seems simple? It’s not.
The term “Joint Base Lewis-McChord” isn’t just a name. It describes the mission.
There are nearly 40,000 soldiers and airmen stationed at the Army and Air Force base. They are a joint base because they work in concert to protect the nation here and throughout the Pacific Rim. When soldiers from there regularly deploy to Korea or Japan or elsewhere through the Indo Pacific theater, or to hot spots around the world, to NATO allies in Europe, or to the Middle East, they are taken there and regularly supplied and resupplied by the C-17s that fly in and out of McChord.
McChord cannot be magically transformed into a civilian airport, because the airspace would conflict totally with all the aircraft that the Army flies 24/7 on training missions and real deployments of regular troops and Special Forces soldiers out of Gray Army Airfield on JBLM Lewis Main, virtually next door to the airfield at McChord. Because the combined base is jointly managed, that airspace can be governed by the military and accommodate both transport functions and Army training functions. There is no way to safely and efficiently manage civilian air traffic and military traffic on adjoining fields that share the same airspace.
So if McChord were to be vacated by the military, it would have to take the Army at JBLM with it.
That would mean relocating more than 100,000 soldiers, airmen, family members, and civilian contractors.
It would remove the second largest employer in the state of Washington (57,000 jobs), eliminate the $13 billion annual economic impact that fuels the South Sound, and send it all somewhere else. And that somewhere would have to somehow make room for those 100,000 service members and contractors and their dependents.
On top of all that, this proposal would have to get congressional approval and go through the Base Realignment and Closure process. Since roughly the end of the Cold War, Congress has approved the closure of 350 installations in five rounds of realignment and closure. JBLM survived them all.
Tipler asks: Wouldn’t it be easier and less expensive to take over McChord than to build a new airport somewhere in the Puget Sound region?
The obvious answer is no. So, what now?
The first commission chartered by the Legislature to solve the need for a new supplemental airport failed for many reasons. At least two of the preliminary sites it suggested conflicted with national defense air traffic out of JBLM. Those sites were non-starters.
A new commission needs to be chartered, and needs to respect and understand existing air traffic needs (including Sea-Tac, Paine Field, Boeing Field, and the McChord and Gray military airfields). It needs not to have geographic/political carveouts as the last commission did (it was forbidden from looking anywhere in King County, for instance).
But looking at McChord and JBLM and thinking that taking it over for civilian aviation is an easy and less expensive solution is not the way to go.