Constantine may have stopped the flights!
Constantine may have stopped the flights! MANOP1984 / GETTY IMAGES

Thousands of immigrants detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are shuttled out of Seattle every year through our county-owned airport. But that may soon be coming to an end after the private company facilitating these flights through Boeing Field announced Thursday that they would no longer work with the company running these flights.

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Modern Aviation, a private company that has a permit from the county to operate flight services like refueling and hangar space for airlines, said Thursday that they will no longer facilitate ICE flights flown by Swift Air, the airline believed to be facilitating these flights. Two other companies that also provide these services at Boeing Field will also no longer work with ICE flights, according to a press release from County Executive Dow Constantine.

Eric Schneider, a general manager at Modern Aviation, confirmed to me today that Constantine’s press release was accurate but he declined to answer any questions regarding their work with the ICE flights nor specify when exactly the flights would end.

John Parrott, Boeing Field’s director, told me he also could not estimate exactly when the flights would end because the terms surrounding Modern Aviation’s contract with Swift are private. Parrot told me he was confident that the agreement from these three private companies would stop ICE from chartering flights through the county-owned airport.

The ICE flights made headlines last week when the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) released a report that showed the county’s airport had been used by the Trump Administration to move thousands of detained immigrants. Phil Neff, a spokesperson for UWCHR, said that they were encouraged by the recent announcement but reiterated that ensuring that the flights end would require further monitoring.

“It will be important to ensure that this agreement is held up in practice, given that King County states that it does not have information regarding which Swift Air flights are part of ICE operations,” Neff said.

Dow Consantine earlier this year.
Dow Consantine earlier this year. Lester Black

Constantine first mentioned these ICE flights at a press conference back in June of 2018. With Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson at his side, Constantine pledged to use “everything in my power” to make sure Boeing Field “is not being used to perpetuate this brutality against people.” It’s not clear exactly what Constantine did in the intervening period (he denied my interview request last week when I tried to ask this question) but what is clear is that the ICE flights continued. According to the UWCHR, there were at last 1,761 detainees transported on 27 ICE flights from Boeing Field between Constantine’s public promise and the end of last year.

That data was part of a report UWCHR released on Tuesday of last week that showed Boeing Field was used to shuttle 34,400 people on their way to deportations in the last ten years, including people who ended up on a flight to Somalia where people were allegedly kicked, beaten, placed in full-body restraints, and denied the use of a restroom. Constantine pre-empted the release of the troubling report (without telling the report’s authors he was doing so) by calling a press conference where he announced specific policies aimed at ending the flights. The policies included renegotiating the county’s contracts with the Modern Aviation and the two other “fixed base operators” that provide necessary services for airlines using the airport. The county wants to put a requirement in these contracts that would stop them from working with ICE, but the county was unable to say exactly when they would be able to renegotiate these contracts, making it unclear if that route was even possible.

Now it looks like the county has avoided forcing these companies into blocking ICE flights by getting all three of the airport’s fixed base operators to voluntarily say no to any flights that are transporting ICE detainees. Airlines need a fixed base operator to run a flight and Parrott told me it was unlikely that a fourth fixed base operator could quickly set up based on size constraints and permitting requirements.

“I can’t imagine how anyone would do that and it’s unlikely because these particular flights are a small part of Modern Aviation and a very small part of the airport’s operations so no FBO would be able to survive just on these few flights,” Parrott said.

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The airport will still implement the policies in Constantine’s executive order even with the voluntary agreements from the three private companies, according to Parrot. That includes updating the airport’s governing policies, renegotiating contracts, and bringing more cameras to the airport so the county can better monitor how the facility is used. There is no legal requirement for the county to know exactly what is on the flights at the airport so those cameras will help provide more information about the flights.

Neff said in an email that they will continue to track these flights at the airport to see if more ICE flights are taking off.

“We will continue to monitor flights to or from King County International Airport under ICE's 'RPN' callsign, which can be tracked using publicly available flight tracking websites (we've set up a Twitter feed tracking these flights locally). However, we know that not all ICE flights operate under this callsign, and that other private charter companies also service ICE flights,” Neff said in an email.