America's Crunchiest Airport Offers a $15 Minimum Wage and Kindness to Birds

If an award were given for airport progressivism, Washington’s Seattle-Tacoma International would have already been the clear front-runner. It was one of the first airports to deploy radar—instead of, say, shotgun blasts—to humanely disperse birds from flight paths. It also pioneered the energy-saving practice of pushing warm and cool air from within the terminal to parked airplanes.

Now the airport is on the verge of becoming the first in the country to guarantee all workers a $15-an-hour minimum wage—far higher than the statewide minimum of $9.19 and federal minimum of $7.25.

Supporters of a ballot measure to mandate the increased minimum wage throughout SeaTac, the town surrounding the airport just south of Seattle, have claimed victory in Tuesday’s local vote. If the new law survives likely legal challenges, it would apply to workers at hotels, rental-car agencies, and restaurants, as well as about 18,000 people who work in and around the airport in operations and concessions. Workers covered by the measure would also receive six and a half paid days off per year.

The airport did not adopt a public position on the ballot measure, according to spokesman Perry Cooper, but it’s clear officials are concerned about what a $15 minimum wage will mean when concession contracts come up for bid starting in 2015. Last year, SeaTac was home to the highest-grossing airport restaurant in North America, with $12.8 million in annual revenue. Airlines likewise would be forced to negotiate higher rates for workers who provide services at SeaTac, such as airplane cleaners and baggage handlers. The airport saw a record 33.2 million passengers last year and is forecasting 41 million by 2021.

SeaTac’s progressive spirit goes beyond labor. The airport introduced a preconditioned air facility this summer that pipes chilled and heated air to gates so that waiting airplanes can turn off their jets and save fuel. The airport chills water used for climate control at night, when electricity rates drop, and then stores the cool air for use later in the day. In winter, meanwhile, steam is used to keep airplane cabins warm. The air system is expected to save airlines $10 million in fuel costs each year and reduce carbon emissions by 50,000 metric tons—the equivalent, the airport says, of removing 8,700 cars from roads.

The airport also has an extensive recycling program and requires all of its many java peddlers to compost their used coffee grounds. That’s about 120 tons per year, just from airport coffee drinkers. “There are about a dozen airports out there that are amongst the greenest and, in my opinion, Seattle is one of them,” says Elizabeth Leavitt, Port of Seattle’s director of aviation planning and environmental services.

SeaTac Airport is home to some of the most extensive avian-radar testing in the nation, with research programs devoted to detecting and dispersing bird flocks that pose a risk to airplanes. Some estimates of airlines’ bird-strike damage range as high as $500 million per year, a far costlier problem than damage from debris on runways. The airport, working with the Center of Excellence for Airport Technology at the University of Illinois, launched its radar program in 2010 with a goal to hone the radar so that monitors can discern which flocks present a hazard. Workers are then to disperse the birds using nonviolent methods. “We’d like to prevent these problems long before we need to alert a pilot or the air traffic control tower,” Leavitt says.

One crunchy amenity you won’t find just yet at Seattle’s airport: a dedicated yoga space. For that, you’ll need to fly to San Francisco, Dallas-Fort Worth, or Burlington, Vt.