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Going Places

Science, Art, Luck Combine To Bring New Routes To Sea-Tac Airport

Elaine Thompson
AP File Photo
Nearly 47 million passengers come through Sea-Tac Airport each year. And with those numbers growing, attracting new carriers and offering more destinations to the flying public is becoming more important.

Three new airlines begin flying to Sea-Tac International Airport later this year.

Air France returns in March with service to Paris after a nearly six-year hiatus. Aer Lingus starts flying from Seattle to Dublin in May, which is also when the Thomas Cook Airline will begin offering a flight to Manchester, England.

But getting those airlines to set up service can be complicated. KNKX travel expert Matthew Brumley turned to Mike Ehl, director of operations at Sea-Tac, for some insight. 

The Three Steps

“It’s very competitive,” Ehl said. “I would say it’s part science, part art and part luck.”

The science part involves lots of data – costs, revenu, and a margin for how much an airline can expect to make per passenger.

Ehl says Sea-Tac’s calculations show that each new route could be worth between $75 million and $100 million to the local economy. That covers everything from direct revenue for airlines, to local jobs, to the money people spend when they’re brought here by that airline.

And there are incentives. Aer Lingus will receive about $1 million in incentives from the airport and the community. The airport will do things like waive landing fees. Irish-American organizations in the community are also offering some money to help advertise the new route.

The art comes from developing relationships and knowing how to grab the interest and attention of different airlines. For that, Sea-Tac Airport and other facilities have a dedicated staff.

“And then there’s the luck part of it,” Ehl says. “The CEO of Hainan Airlines, for example, who is a tremendous advocate for Seattle, decided to choose Seattle as the first North American destination because of his affinity for the area and having lived here.”

It Takes Years, Or Not

Sometimes attracting an airline can take years. It took seven years to bring Air France to Sea-Tac during its first run. (The airline returns to Seattle with a route to Paris, after a nearly six-year hiatus.)

On the other hand, Aer Lingus set up its route to Dublin – debuting in May – much faster.

“Matthew O’Toole from the Irish Network called me out of the blue, and said ‘What do you think about the potential for nonstop service to Ireland?’” Ehl said. “And I thought to myself, ‘This is a long shot. It’s not going to happen.’”

The airport had never been approached about service to Ireland before. It wasn’t something they were thinking about. And Sea-Tac already has expanding service to the United Kingdom, near enough for a traveler to hop a cheaper connecting flight.

But Ehl says there was behind-the-scenes work happening, including with corporations like Microsoft and Amazon that have business ties in Ireland. The Irish consul general in the western United States was also bullish about it.

“Within seven months – not seven years, seven months – Aer Lingus made that decision that they would fly here,” Ehl said.

Sea-Tac Airport has some advantages over other U.S. airports. For example, it’s roughly equidistant to good portions of Asia and Europe. Both Tokyo and London are about 4,800 miles away.

“But sometimes we talk to airlines that aren’t even aware of where Seattle is,” Ehl said. “So we play matchmaker, and indeed we participate in conferences around the world where they have speed dating between airlines and airports, and you have 15 minutes to make your case.”


Ehl says airports outside the United States often surpass the ones here, in terms of what they can offer travelers.

Airlines work to satisfy profit margins for investors and shareholders. He says airports in the U.S., which generally fall under governmental control, try to focus on public service.

Ehl says the airport industry in this country should be more like the hospitality industry.

“We should have the ambience, the environment, the amenities, the convenience and the appreciation that you would in a fine hotel,” he said. “It’s very difficult to do in this country because of the lack of adequate financing.”

He looks to the airport in Seoul, South Korea, as an example.

“The director of that airport reports directly to the president of South Korea,” Ehl said. “That’s how important it is. It’s the face of the nation.”


This is the second of two parts on Sea-Tac Airport. Next week, we’ll hear how Sea-Tac aims to be environmentally sustainable. "Going Places" is 88.5's weekly exploration of travel. Our travel expert, Matthew Brumley, is co-founder of Earthbound Expeditions on Bainbridge Island, which provides small group travel to clients including KNKX. Never miss an episode again. Subscribe to Going Places with iTunes Google Play or Stitcher.

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