As Sea-Tac struggles to handle rapid growth (see story, page 41) and as vehicle traffic through Seattle faces gridlock much of the day, pressure to develop a second major airport in Washington state will continue to grow. Boeing Field — officially King County International Airport — is not a candidate as a relief airport because of conflict with the flight pattern into Sea-Tac. McChord Field, a military airport near Tacoma, is also mentioned as a possible option — Colorado Springs Airport south of Denver, for example, has combined military and commercial operations. But McChord is a key component of Joint Base Lewis-McChord and there are no plans or initiatives afoot to use McChord for commercial flights.
Besides, since Sea-Tac is already situated between Seattle and Tacoma, Paine Field is far better positioned to serve the growing number of residents who live in Seattle and to the north. The state Office of Financial Management estimates that, by 2025, the population of Snohomish County alone will grow to 1 million, up from 870,000 today. About 4,700 travelers a day from Snohomish County depart from Sea-Tac, according to Port of Seattle passenger data from 2014 and 2015. Most presumably have to travel by highway through the center of Seattle to get there.
A Long Runway
1. A WPA project, Paine Field was one of 10 “super airports” intended to spur economic growth during the Great Depression.
2. The site required tree clearing and leveling to ready it for runways in 1936.
3. Shortly after it opened, the airport was used by the military during World War II.
4. Alaska Airlines had a maintenance hangar at Paine Field in the late 1940s
It’s also difficult for communities in north Puget Sound to argue persuasively that Paine Field’s growth should be limited when the airport was there before most of the communities were established, and when the region’s economy has benefitted greatly from aerospace development around Paine Field.
It is now one of the largest manufacturing and service centers in the state, encompassing about 50,000 jobs. Boeing builds its largest planes at a Paine Field facility that is the largest building in the world. Other companies like Aviation Technical Services, which employs 1,500 workers doing commercial aircraft maintenance, also call Paine Field home and use its runways for their operations.
Although commercial flights will initially be limited to about 24 a day, Paine Field is already a busy airport. It handles roughly 300 flights daily, including large jetliners from the Boeing factory and small planes flown by private aircraft owners. The modern, FAA-operated control tower was built in 2003, more than doubling the size of the old tower, and it has the most advanced aviation technology in the industry.
Propeller Airports is moving ahead — it has submitted its application to comply with Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act — and hopes to break ground on the new terminal by the end of this year. Flights could begin in late 2017.
With commercial operations an apparent certainty, the issue now is growth. Asked to discuss the future, Propeller CEO Brett Smith is careful in his response. He says the company is “building its business model around a two-gate terminal, and beyond that, who knows?”
Opponents doubt Propeller’s ability to operate a terminal, given its lack of a track record, but Smith insists Propeller will create a “world-class facility worthy of this airport.”
Propeller expects to make a profit from parking, concession, service and airline facility fees.
Tom Hoban, CEO of the Coast Group of Companies, an Everett-based commercial real-estate and investment firm, is often described as the “father” of the effort to bring commercial service to Paine. He sees the two-gate operation as adequate for now. But, he adds, “If you think of the things the community could do to drive economic diversity and provide jobs for our kids, there is no better option than leveraging a public asset like Paine Field.”
If Seattle-based Alaska Airlines is one of the airlines that operates from Paine, Hoban says the community could not have a better partner.
He also disagrees with residents of communities opposing commercialization, predicting commercial operations at Paine Field will likely increase property values. He says commercial flights will provide businesses the ability to function in Snohomish County, attracting more demand. “The model is there,” he notes. “San Jose to SFO [San Francisco], John Wayne to LAX [Los Angeles]. It’s the low-hanging fruit.”
Propeller’s Smith agrees. “Is it going to be Sea-Tac north?” he asks. “No.”
But he believes the operation will provide a new and welcome experience for passengers tired of the Sea-Tac hassle. Propeller’s terminal will have a fireplace and comfortable seating areas. The nearby parking lot will offer valet service; arriving passengers will be able to send text messages to the lot and have their cars waiting in front of the terminal building.
Smith says Propeller will leverage what he calls “the incredible aviation infrastructure at Paine Field” to encourage further economic development and provide local travelers an airport option.
Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers says having a private company operate the airport not only provides substantial income for the county — the lease agreement calls for annual payments of about $450,000 — but also eliminates the risk of a publicly operated terminal. Under the 30-year lease, Propeller is responsible for building and maintaining a state-of-the-art, two-gate terminal, which would revert to county ownership at the end of the lease.