Boeing Field rejects ICE flights — where will they land now?

Airlines have agreed to cease transporting undocumented immigrants via the south Seattle airport. Observers worry that the flights could shift to Everett.

Modern Aviation's Seattle facility seen at King County International Airport in Seattle, April 23, 2019. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

King County Executive Dow Constantine announced Thursday that King County International Airport, known as Boeing Field, will no longer service flights chartered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

All three companies at Boeing Field that can service ICE planes, so-called fixed-base operators, are pledging to cease working with the federal agency, according to a King County news release. Airport director John Parrott explained that although the airport can’t forbid ICE Air flights from landing there, a company would have to agree to assist with fueling and other services in order for the flights to continue flying in and out of the airport.   

“It was their business decision at the end of the day,” Parrott said, referring to the fixed-base operators’ refusal to work with ICE. Crosscut’s calls to the fixed-base operators — Modern Aviation, Signature Flight Support and Kenmore Aero Services — were not immediately returned.

Now, immigration advocates wonder how soon those ICE Air flights will stop landing at Boeing Field and whether the federal agency will simply shift its operations to a different airport in the region, such as Paine Field in Everett.

Phil Neff, program coordinator at the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, which last week released a report that revealed 34,400 detainees had been deported from Boeing Field in the past eight years, said ICE has used other airports in the past.

In 2010 and 2011, for example, ICE used Paine Field to transport more than 300 passengers. Neff also said a few flights carrying Haitian detainees had landed at Yakima Air Terminal in recent years.

When asked whether the agency plans to shift operations elsewhere, Tanya Roman, a spokesperson for ICE in the Pacific Northwest, said: “Despite state and local efforts to interfere, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will carry out its mission to enforce U.S. immigration laws. ICE will fully utilize its nationwide assets to ensure mission accomplishment. State and local efforts at thwarting ICE operations serve only to create additional security concerns and add significant delays and costs to U.S. taxpayers.”

GEO Group, the private company that runs the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where many of the detainees on ICE Air flights that land in the region are held, refused to provide any information, referring all questions to ICE.

UW researchers, however, pledged to continue tracking ICE Air flights statewide.

Researchers believe most ICE Air flights are assigned the Federal Aviation Administration abbreviation “RPN,” which stands for repatriate. Websites like RadarBox allow the public to track flights marked with certain prefixes, such as “RPN.” By using the flight tracking website FlightAware, researchers then receive alerts every time an “RPN” flight lands at Boeing Field. These alerts automatically send tweets to the Twitter handle @ICEAirKBFI, Neff explained.  

The last ICE Air flight that landed at Boeing Field, according to the tracking system UW researchers have established, landed on Monday, April 29 at 10:11 a.m. from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway before going on to El Paso, Texas.

Boeing Field is believed to be the first airport in the country to place a ban on ICE Air flights. Constantine first pledged to shut down the flights in 2018. Ahead of the report from the UW Center for Human Rights, he vowed to ensure “any leases with companies that operate hangars and other facilities at King County International Airport comply with local immigration and human rights ordinances."

Parrott, the airport director, said Boeing Field still plans on installing cameras to better track airport activity and to continue reviewing leases in order to help ensure that fixed-base operators uphold their voluntary agreement with the county to cease working with ICE.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where she focused on race, immigration and other issues.