Should Lake Union be an International Seaplane Airport in the Heart of the City?

By Peter Erickson

In a letter on August 14 of this year, Kenmore Air quietly petitioned the Seattle Police Department and City of Seattle for measures that would effectively turn the center of Lake Union into a dedicated seaplane runway. By way of background, in the 1970’s there were 7 to 10 flights (5 take-offs /5 landings) a week on Lake Union. By 1989 there were 20 take-offs/20 landings a day. This year Kenmore Air alone (exclusive of Harbor and Chrysler Air) averaged 50 take-offs/50 landings a day over a 10-hour day that’s a flight event every 6 minutes. And if the dedicated runway requested in the last paragraph of their letter comes to pass, Lake Union will become a continuous hub of loud commuter flights with serious environmental and safety impacts for maritime, commercial and recreational users in the heart of our city.

Our organization, the Seaplanes Environmental Coalition (SEC) representing adjacent community councils, homeowner organizations, maritime businesses, floating homes and recreational enterprises, is reaching out to engage Kenmore Air in a public, comprehensive planning process based on the input of all Lake Union stakeholders.

site of seaplane runway on Lake Union

Today’s seaplane debate is driven by Kenmore’s letter to the city of August 14 which requested the following:

  • A 400-foot-wide by 3,000-foot-long zone with a single row of buoys down the center of the lake.
  • The buoys blink for 5 minutes when pilots are landing or taking-off. When blinking everyone is expected to move away.
  • Kenmore’s letter claims “an average of 80 flights a day” (which does not include the flights of its Canadian affiliate, Harbour Air), which over a 10-hour day during the summer means a flight every 6 minutes. In short, the buoys are always blinking and this 1.2 million square-foot runway is effectively an off-limits zone down the center of the lake.
  • Thousands of sailboats, kayakers, paddleboarders, rowers, recreational power boats and maritime businesses use the lake every week during the summer.
  • As a limited natural resource Lake Union is now very crowded. Simultaneously Kenmore Air, Seattle Seaplanes, and now Harbour Air out of Canada, have increased flights from 40 to over 80 flights a day. Because of these crowded conditions, Kenmore’s letter states that the single row of buoys is not safe and now requires police management. Yet Kenmore Air, a profitable, privately owned company, instead of monitoring the lane itself expects the police department to patrol the runway clearing it of boats and recreational users — at tax payer expense
  • The only readily found fee paid by Kenmore Air for the use of Lake Union as their runway is to the Department of Natural Resources for $8,000 a year.
  • In the last paragraph of their letter, Kenmore states that if the policing and single row of buoys doesn’t work, they request a second row of buoys as a “demarcated landing zone in Lake Union for the exclusive use of seaplanes”.

The Seaplanes Environmental Coalition’s main objective is a Lake Union for All. It has three goals:  livability, public safety and the equitable sharing of the lake.

Our short-term goals are as follows:

  • Kenmore should retract in writing its request for the second row of buoys to the City of Seattle and Department of Natural Resources.
  • Kenmore to cease further backdoor efforts (as with the August 14th letter which should have been cover-copied to SEC based on the 1989 Agreement) to impose a double-buoyed dedicated runway down the center of Lake Union.
  • Kenmore be allowed to continue to operate with the temporary and seasonal single row of buoys, subject to the review by the agencies involved, including public outreach and comment.
  • Kenmore agree to partner with SEC in community outreach for a public process with all stakeholders to develop a comprehensive land-use plan for Lake Union.
  • Kenmore be solely responsible for its own life-safety measures which should include the use of its staff and equipment to monitor the runway and educate users of the lake that interfere with its landing zone. As a private business that recently sold an interest in its company for many millions of dollars it should not be burdening the under-funded Harbor Patrol to clear its runway.

The Seaplanes Coalition’s long-range objective is to work with Kenmore and other seaplane operators:

  • to limit the use of the Lake Union to specific seaplane operators (as opposed to the general public);
  • to reduce the number of seaplane flights to and from Lake Union;
  • to transition over a 5 year period to less noise planes, with less impact;
  • to develop zoning controls for Lake Union based on stakeholder input;
  • and to find additional safe and sustainable, seaplane runways on nearby bodies of water and/or relocate flight operations to one of the several nearby land-based airports;

SEC is willing to work with Kenmore and other operators to make Lake Union a safer and better environment for all. To support this effort to require a comprehensive lake-use plan based on the input of all stakeholders, go to our website www.savelakeunion.com and sign the petition (ignore the confusing petition service’s request for a donation).

Peter Erickson is president of Seaplane Environmental Coalition.