Pierce County Councilmember Has Eyes Toward the Future for State’s Air Travel Capacity Issues

Pierce County Councilmember Has Eyes Toward the Future for State’s Air Travel Capacity Issues

By Bryan Dominique
Pierce County Council Communications Manager

Pierce County Councilmember Dave Morell (District One) shares information on the Paris Air Show and Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing.

At a House Transportation Committee Hearing on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier said of two proposed regional airport sites in Pierce County, “The consequences, the impacts, the negative results for the people of Pierce County, for our environment, for our community are just dramatically greater than any potential benefits that we would see.”

The hearing the House Transportation Committee held was to hear about three proposed greenfield locations – two in Pierce County and one in the County’s southern neighbor, Thurston County – that could potentially serve as grounds for a regional airport.

At that same hearing, Dammeier offered that the state could better use existing airfields and create smaller regional airports to meet the need for regional flights.

But what if you didn’t need an airport at all?

Electric vertical take-off and landing, often referred to as eVTOL in the aviation industry, is a quickly emerging market for air travel focused on moving people short distances. With eVTOL, the aircraft takes off and lands like a helicopter but moves like an airplane, eliminating the need for long runways.

Most of the research and development has been focused on moving a few occupants over short distances. Still, major commercial airliners and aeronautic businesses have invested in the concept as a way to safely move many people short distances – 500 miles or less – at capacity.

Under that concept, airports would still be needed, which is why Pierce County Councilmember Dave Morell (District One), who recently represented the County at the Paris Air Show and serves on the Pierce County Airport/Thun Field Advisory Commission, has been championing the placement of eVTOL at regional airports, and more recently at Thun Field.

Wisk Cora eVTOL Aircraft in Oshkosh Airport completing a public demonstration on July 25, 2023.

“eVTOL was all the talk at the Paris Air Show because it addresses two major areas of concern in aviation – climate change regulation and increasing capacity to move people around,” said Morell. “The major commercial carriers are paying attention to eVTOL and investing in this concept because they will need to meet new government regulations pertaining to greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years, and this is a cost-effective way to get at that.”

An added bonus to eVTOL is it’s much quieter than a traditional aircraft, added Morell, noting that research and development have been invested in making these aircraft as quiet as possible.

However, the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to certify any eVTOL craft to move people. Industry insiders say that certification for some aircraft could come as early as 2024 though.

For Washington State, this is likely welcome news. The CACC was formed in the first place to address capacity issues at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). State Office of Financial Management states, “Washington’s resident population increased by 14.6 percent, or 980,741 people, between 2010 and 2020, outpacing the national growth rate of 7.4 percent.”

More people have put increased pressure on SEA to meet the state’s air travel needs, and a second regional airport in the form of a greenfield site was believed to be the answer.

Pierce County leaders disagreed with this analysis, with Dammeier and the seven-member Pierce County Council sending a joint letter to the CACC and the Washington State Department of Transportation stating why the greenfield sites in Pierce County weren’t viable.

“A significant number of flights out of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport are regional flights. We’re talking flights to British Columbia in Canada, Portland, Oregon, Butte Montana, and even as far south as Redding, California,” said Morell. Taking the strain off of the international airport for those regional flights will ease a lot of the capacity issues. This isn’t about needing more space but innovation and partnering with the private sector to meet our future travel needs.”

The eVTOL concept is also likely faster to bring to scale than construction on a greenfield site, according to Morell. Thun Field in Pierce County was recently approved for two eVTOL stations, which can be placed quickly. Approval was possible in part from Morell’s Next Gen Initiatives he advocated for in the development of the 2023-2024 Pierce County Budget.

“With eVTOL stations, we’re positioning Pierce County to be an early hub for regional air travel, which will not only make us a leader in helping the state curb its carbon emissions but also provide significant economic development for the County,” added Morell.

For now, though, travelers must continue using SEA for their regional air travel. The CACC was disbanded in 2023 with the passage of Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1791 and replaced with a Commercial Aviation Work Group to investigate the expansion of existing airports and potential greenfield siting locations. It also required WSDOT to evaluate long-range aviation needs in the broader context of state transportation needs.

For Morell’s part, he says he will advocate for a move toward eVTOL through that process.