Final Analysis: Paine Management

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

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.

Virgin on Business: Celebrating Boeing and the Interstate

Virgin on Business: Celebrating Boeing and the Interstate

If nothing else, significant anniversaries give us reason to pause and ponder.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Round-number-anniversary stories are an overused tool in the journalism workshop, maybe because they’re still helpful in pausing to assess where we are, how we got here and where we’re going.

In the case of two such round-number anniversaries being marked this year, those questions about where we’ve been and where we’re going have literal application because they pertain to two hugely significant developments in transportation, both important to this region, although only one is closely identified with it.

This year, Boeing celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding and the interstate highway system marks 60 years since its official launch.

It is possible to overstate the significance to Seattle of Bill Boeing’s venture into aviation. It’s not true that without Boeing there wouldn’t be a Seattle, at least one that anyone would have heard of. Seattle was already someplace by 1916, thanks to the port and the railroads — the earlier contributions of two other modes of transport to Seattle’s creation — and events like the Klondike gold rush. Boeing didn’t emerge as the world’s preeminent commercial-aerospace company until well into its middle age.

But would the Seattle region have grown to the size it is and the importance it claims without being one of the world’s centers of aerospace design and production? Would it have developed the tech industries it thrives upon today without the foundation Boeing laid? Would it be a home to a thick portfolio of nationally significant companies? That’s highly debatable and quite doubtful.

As for where we’re going, wherever it is, we’ll likely get there by plane for a long time hence. For all the talk of hyperloops and other technologies, the airplane is still a remarkably efficient, productive and safe method of getting people and stuff from one place to another. There may be revolutions in design, materials and propulsion to rival the transition from propeller to jet, but short of teleportation, the airplane’s place in transportation is secure.

Much less secure are Boeing’s and Seattle’s places in that future. A lot of airplane-building rivals have come and gone in 100 years, and more are coming. It would be nice for both if Boeing and Seattle were still relevant to the discussion of the aerospace industry when the 200th anniversary of Boeing’s founding occurs. 

Meanwhile, the interstate highway system gets little love and a lot of abuse these days, credited with urban demolition, suburban sprawl and desecration of the countryside, not to mention the intangible crime of encouraging Americans to race to their destinations while ignoring the joys and sights of the journey.

Some of the blame is earned; much of it is silly. For people and things, the destination usually matters more than the journey. The interstates rendered the destination possible by making the journey faster and safer, even more enjoyable. And lamentations about not seeing or appreciating the country when viewed from the interstate are sometimes wrong. Take the drive on I-82 between Ellensburg and Yakima, or on I-90 just west of Snoqualmie summit, and try not to be impressed by either the scenery or the engineering feats.

Your cargo, however, is not on a sightseeing trip. It has places to be and work to do, which underscores the massive contribution the interstate system has made as an incredibly powerful economic engine. The modern American supply chain is a wondrous thing; it doesn’t happen without a network of limited-access divided highways, which, by the way, took a lot of traffic off city streets and rural roads, improving life for many.

Unloved as Interstates 5, 90 and 405 are for their congestion, noise, unsightliness, etc., and as expensive as it’s going to be to expand, rebuild and maintain them, give them credit for making urban life possible.  

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.