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All Over The Map: When Sea-Tac Airport disappeared for six months

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was renamed Henry M. Jackson International Airport in tribute to the late senator for six months in the early 1980s. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio)

The history of the word “Sea-Tac” (or “Seatac,” or “SeaTac”) as an abbreviation for “Seattle-Tacoma” can feel a little murky sometimes.

As far as anybody knows, the name “Seatac” was first applied to a ship built in Tacoma and launched on July 28, 1926 – and that plied local waters for decades. In the late 1930s, the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation was nicknamed “SeaTac” by newspaper writers, and possibly by the company and its employees, too. And as far as the aviation world is concerned, the exact phrase “The Sea-Tac Airport” appears to have first been used in a newspaper – The News Tribune of Tacoma – on Jan. 3, 1943.

That newspaper appearance of the Sea-Tac name was in the headline for an editorial, which pointed with pride to the new $5 million airport gradually taking shape near Bow Lake. It also included a note of caution for the future – of the facility, and for the partnership that made it possible. That partnership, the newspaper felt, signaled an end to a rivalry stretching back to the railroad battles of the 19th century.

“One importance of the Sea-Tac airport should not be overlooked,” the editorial’s final paragraph began, “that it is the result of a joint endeavor of both communities. It should become a monument to the end of inter-city war [between Seattle and Tacoma], proof-positive of the value of cooperation between the two communities, which have so much in common, which have so much to gain by pulling together.”

That cooperation was tested early on, when Boeing CEO Phillip Johnson died in September 1944 of a heart attack at age 49, and Port of Seattle officials expressed a desire to rename the not-yet-open Bow Lake facility “Johnson Field.” Johnson justifiably gets a lot of the credit for Boeing’s incredible growth – and for the company’s string of successful military aircraft – during World War II.

It’s unclear how, but this first renaming effort passed away, too. But before it did, News Tribune editorial writers were at it again, expressing their feelings on Sept. 24, 1944, with an opinion piece headlined, simply, “Keep it Sea-Tac.”

And keep it Sea-Tac they did. Until another death, in another September, 39 years later.

On Sept. 1, 1983, longtime Democratic U.S. Senator from the Great State of Washington Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson passed away suddenly and unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm at age 71. Senator Jackson was a native son of Everett, and a somewhat hawkish lawmaker who always had Boeing’s back for the 40+ years he served the Evergreen State in Congress.

Senator Jackson’s death came in the aftermath of the shooting down by the Soviet Union of a Korean Airlines 747 near Sakhalin Island – during a pretty scary chapter in Cold War history. That 747, of course, had been built by Boeing in Jackson’s hometown of Everett. In the tragedy that’s still not completely understood, all 269 people aboard the jetliner were lost. Senator Jackson had just spoken at a press conference and had condemned the downing of the plane before he went home to Grand Avenue, where he passed away.

On Sept. 13, as a tribute to the Senator – but without consulting any members of the public or, really, anyone – Port of Seattle Commissioners voted to change the name of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Henry M. Jackson International Airport.

It’s hard to find a photograph nowadays, but many Seattleites can still recall visiting the facility that autumn and finding the cube-shaped time and temperature sign (that once stood in the median on the airport freeway approaching the terminal) rebranded, in sans serif font, white letters on dark blue backlit plexiglass: “Henry M. Jackson International Airport.”

There was huge public outcry almost immediately in opposition to the name change. Tacoma residents and business leaders, and especially officials with the Port of Tacoma, were angry about having their city’s name taken off the airport since the shared name was part of the original deal struck in the 1940s to build – and to help fund – the airport, and to support its operations. While a small minority of local residents did support honoring Senator Jackson by changing Sea-Tac’s name, they were mostly drowned out by the controversy.

Letters to the editor were heavily weighed against the new name, and there was a poll commissioned that showed Puget Sound residents 5-to-1 in favor of changing the name back. There was even an advisory ballot in Tacoma in November 1983 about restoring “Tacoma” to the airport’s name, which was approved by a margin of 4-to-1.

One of the worries expressed by some was that the short version of the name – Jackson Airport – would be too easily confused with Mississippi. Another was that “Jackson” was simply devoid of any geographic reference to Seattle or Tacoma. In the port election that November, two incumbents were defeated, and the name controversy was at least partially blamed.

At a Port Commission public meeting on Feb. 15, 1984, at the old Renton Sheraton, the commissioners got an earful. A few days later, on Feb. 28, 1984, the commission voted 3-2 to change the name back. They decided, almost 40 years after first being told, to “Keep it Sea-Tac.”

Fortunately for tax payers – but not for fans of obscure or “ghost” road signs – WSDOT had decided early on in the controversy to wait things out and not make any changes to signage along I-5, 405, and 509. Estimates were they saved about $35,000, by simply – and wisely – choosing to “Keep it Sea-Tac.”

Nearly 40 years after the Jackson Airport went away, the Port of Seattle has recently embraced “SEA” as the facility’s “brand” – the meaning of which its website describes in detail. “SEA” is the airport’s International Air Transport Association three-letter abbreviation or code — seen on tickets, luggage tags, and aeronautical navigation charts — and is how the airport is known in the travel industry around the world.

However, whatever the brand may be now or in the future, fans of the name “Sea-Tac” need not worry, the Port says, because “though the nickname Sea-Tac will be less prominent, it’s a name local people know and love. We recognize people will continue to use it, and that’s great!”

In other words, they’re going to Keep it Sea-Tac.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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