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Airport 101

By Mary Lane Gallagher | Window editor

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Mark Reis (‘75) presides over Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which sees an average of 100,000 passengers a day. | Photo by Niki Desautels
Your suitcase gets a non-stop flight: Mark Reis (‘75), managing director for aviation for the Port of Seattle, stands among the 13 miles of conveyor belts that carry luggage from the check-in desk to the planes in an average of 13 minutes. | Photo by Niki Desautels

Sidebar: Sea-Tac by the Numbers

Sea-Tac by the Numbers

The secret to running the busiest airport in the Pacific Northwest is a lot like the secret to traveling through it on the day before Thanksgiving.

Keep thinking about the destination, and don’t get derailed by little hassles along the way.

“I just accept the fact that every day brings a new set of challenges,” says Mark Reis (’75), in his glass-walled office with a commanding view of the South Terminal and airfield at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

“Not much walks in this door that’s run of the mill,” says Reis, the Port of Seattle’s managing director of aviation. “People come in often to talk about problems. If I communicate stress, I’m not helping them.”

It’s a skill Reis learned more than three decades ago as an Environmental Education student at Huxley College of the Environment. Throughout his coursework, he says, he was taught to see the big picture.

“That’s what environmental education is all about,” he says, “recognizing the interconnectedness of things.”

Reis, who also earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University, remains connected to Western as a member of Huxley’s Associates Board.

A typical workday for Reis is what he calls a “daily jigsaw” of interconnectedness. An average of 100,000 passengers – enough to fill a city the size of Bellevue – come through the airport each day. A total of 20,000 people work there. Forty-one airlines, themselves facing an uncertain economic climate amid increasing competition, fuel costs and security regulations, take off and land planes an average of about 759 times a day.

With an operation so huge, Reis says he “presides” over the airport rather than manages it. He relies on a staff of a dozen senior aviation managers to handle the day-to-day operations.

“You certainly don’t want to get in their way or do the job for them, because they’re very capable,” Reis says.

The Transportation Safety Administration, which has kept airports on heightened security alert since Sept. 11, 2001, issues new security rules almost every day. Sea-Tac has its own police and fire departments, in addition to more restaurants and stores than many small towns. A sophisticated laser system directs baggage along 13 miles of conveyor belts while herds of itinerant goats keep the grass trimmed near the runways.

Reis must also predict how the forces at play outside of the airport could eventually sweep through the terminals: new rules from Congress and federal regulatory agencies, the economic troubles of the airplane industry and the political clout of neighboring cities and community groups are all woven into the airport’s future. He’s responsible for “making sure we’re focusing on new opportunities and anticipating – and steering to avoid – potholes,” he says.

Reis compares the lessons he’s learned about crisis management to the experience of watching a river rise and fall over the years.

“You become less reactive to any particular rises, because you’ve seen variations on the theme before,” he says. “You’re able to see the big picture and see longer-term trends, the more experience you have. I think that’s certainly true for me.”

Few workdays have been typical in the four years Reis has served as the port’s top airport executive. The airport is nearing the end of $4.5 billion in construction projects, including the new Central Terminal that opened in 2005, an all-weather runway set to open this fall and a light-rail system set to open next year, connecting the airport and downtown Seattle.

The completion of the runway, the most visible and controversial of the recent construction projects, is a major milestone. The work was delayed for years through state and federal court battles, largely over environmental concerns over nearby wetlands. The final project involved moving 16 million cubic feet of dirt to build an embankment to support the runway – and the restoration of dozens of acres of wetlands both at the airport and at a mitigation area in Auburn.

The end result, Reis says, will be fewer flight delays in cloudy weather, which restricts the airport to just one runway about 44 percent of the time now. Reducing flight delays will become increasingly important, Reis says.

“I don’t think the general concerns about security are going away any time soon,” he says. “We’re looking for ways to decrease the hassle factor.”

That includes more automated kiosks to cut down on the number of people standing in line to check in. And a new luggage handling system sends bags through a maze of 13 miles of automated conveyor belts, delivering them from the check-in counter, through security screening machines, and on to planes in an average of 13 minutes. The system was under construction when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 happened, Reis says, so it had to be redesigned almost from scratch to accommodate new security equipment.

New systems and machines aren’t the only things that can make flying easier.

“Every day, almost everybody at the airport has an opportunity to make the traveling experience better,” Reis says. “Every day, we have the opportunity to contribute to the public good. Helping people do that is what makes the job so much fun.”