Final Analysis: Paine Management

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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.

Final Analysis: Flying Higher

Final Analysis: Flying Higher

How a certain local airline could strike a blow for fairer treatment of college athletes.
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
Here’s a thought: While Alaska Air Group spends $2.6 billion swallowing up Virgin America, it should wield some of its new clout — Alaska will soon be the nation’s fifth-largest air carrier — on becoming the college athlete’s best friend.
 
Alaska already showers upon the University of Washington nearly $5 million a year for naming rights to the football field at Husky Stadium and the basketball court at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. It also has sponsorship arrangements with athletic programs at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. It even paints some of its airplanes in the colors of 11 Western universities, including the UW.
 
On the weekend that news of Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America broke, the UW women’s basketball team was completing its improbable and exhilarating run to the Final Four of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. It occurred to me that there’s an opportunity here for Alaska CEO Brad Tilden to start lobbying the NCAA on behalf of student-athletes everywhere, but particularly in Alaska Airlines’ own backyard.
 
Alaska’s Husky Stadium agreement — 10 years, $41 million — already earmarks half of the money for scholarships and “student-athlete welfare.” Last year, for the first time, the NCAA started allowing Division I schools to pay athletes a stipend for incidental living expenses — things like late-night snacks, student fees, incidental travel — that aren’t covered by athletic scholarships for tuition, room and board. 
 
The UW’s annual stipend for athletes is $3,085, or roughly $11.40 a day during a nine-month academic year. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough for a couple of cheeseburgers and a chocolate shake when the dining halls are closed.
 
Alaska’s naming-rights money goes into the pot that helps provide those stipends, which the NCAA instituted as a means of closing the gap between what an athletic scholarship provides — tuition, room, board, books and fees — and the “real” cost of attending college.
 
The problem is that this “cost of attendance” stipend has made a  playing field that’s not level even less fair. Some schools pay stipends of more than $5,000, which is totally permissible under the NCAA guidelines. So if you’re a poor kid being recruited by several universities, which school would you choose — the one offering no stipend, the one offering $3,000 or the one offering $5,000?
 
This is where a corporate CEO has the opportunity to say to the NCAA, “We are a major employer who believes in treating its workers equitably. As a huge supporter of our local university’s athletics program, we think it’s time you paid your athletes a little bit more than cheeseburger money — and paid them fairly acros the board.”
 
It doesn’t have to be a quid-pro-quo situation, as in “pay these athletes or we’ll take our sponsorship money elsewhere.” But airlines have become adept at squeezing travelers for every last dime via baggage fees, boarding fees, legroom fees, beverage fees and the like. I imagine an airline executive could be pretty persuasive suggesting the NCAA assess itself a “fairness fee” and pay student-athletes a decent wage from its enormous piggy bank.
 
The NCAA can still call it a stipend if it wants. Regardless, it should finally admit that scholarships are meant to provide an education but don’t begin to acknowledge that an athlete’s contribution to an institution’s bottom line — not to mention its reputation in the media and its perception by the public — deserves considerably more than free tuition. 
 
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.