When I was a kid, my dad would occasionally drive the family to the airport and park the station wagon outside the fence at the end of the runway so we could watch the airplanes take off and land.
Over the years, the value of the airport as entertainment venue has waned. Today, most of us place the airport somewhere between necessary evil and public annoyance. Vehement opposition to airport development or expansion—anywhere, anytime —has become more predictable than the Mariners re-re-signing Raúl Ibañez.
And so it plays out again, this time in Snohomish County, where many residents and government officials are positively incensed that their local airport might become, well, an airport.
In December, the Federal Aviation Administration released an environmental assessment report that declared regularly scheduled airline service at Paine Field would not cause undue noise or traffic. Of course, any card-carrying member of the Not In My Backyard Alliance would dispute such a finding on the grounds that airport development should occur only in a vacuum or an Iowa cornfield, whichever happens to be farthest from said member’s frame of reference.
Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air, which flies regularly from Bellingham to places like Maui, Palm Springs and the Bay Area, is interested in providing commercial service at Paine Field. If Allegiant get its wish, Alaska Air Group, which owns Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air, will likely follow suit, just to cover its flank. This competition doesn’t mean you’ll be able to catch a flight from the Everett/Mukilteo multiplex to Sin City next month. For one thing, Paine Field doesn’t have a suitable passenger terminal, so Snohomish County, which owns the airport, would have to come up with the money to build one. And, as it happens, the Snohomish County Council and the county executive are among those who aren’t keen on commercializing Paine Field.
Still, if I could catch a convenient flight from Paine Field, I’d do it in a minute. I suspect thousands like me who live north of downtown Seattle would flock to Paine Field. And there’s the rub. People who don’t want commercial traffic at Paine Field fear the airport will get bigger while the value of their homes gets smaller. In their rush to preserve quality of life, they point to a 1978 document known as the Mediated Role Determination (MRD), which suggested that general aviation and commercial aeronautical work, specifically Boeing’s adjacent Everett assembly plant and the huge aircraft maintenance facility now run by Aviation Technical Services (ATS), should continue to be the dominant uses of Paine Field. A 2005 county task force suggested the MRD should be “retired” as a policy document, but, in 2008, the County Council rejected that finding and restated its opposition to commercial air service.
Some actually fear that commercializing Paine Field could squeeze out Boeing and ATS entirely. Boeing’s willingness to build assembly plants outside the Seattle area is an easy incitement to such silly paranoia. In reality, bringing limited commercial service to Paine Field is a wise economic hedge against placing all of the region’s eggs in the manufacturing/maintenance basket.
When it was built by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, Paine Field was actually envisioned as one of 10 new “super airports” across the United States. That prediction never came true, but Paine Field has evolved over the years—from public airfield to Air Force base, and from Air Force base to general aviation airport and manufacturing site. Failing to acknowledge the likelihood of further evolution at Paine Field will leave those who cherish stability at the expense of opportunity on the outside looking in.
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.