Starting next year, people living north of Seattle will have Everett’s Paine Field as an alternative to Seattle-Tacoma International, as Alaska Airlines begins daily passenger flights likely serving popular destinations in Oregon and California.
“As our region continues to grow at a record pace and Sea-Tac Airport nears capacity, the time is right,” said Alaska Airlines Chief Executive Brad Tilden. “Today’s news means less time stuck in traffic on Interstate 5 and more time enjoying your vacation or making the most of your business trip.”
Alaska announced Wednesday it plans to begin the flights in fall 2018, but it won’t disclose specific routes and flight schedules – or begin selling tickets – until early next year.
Citing noise and traffic concerns, some nearby residents as well as the mayor of the city of Mukilteo, which adjoins the Paine Field runway, have long opposed commercial flights at the airfield.
In contrast, Snohomish County and Everett officials have strongly backed the development as a boost to the area’s economy.
Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers called Alaska’s move “great news.”
“Businesses will have easier access to major markets, and leisure travelers can skip the commute down south, saving time and fuel,” Somers said.
Alaska said it plans to operate nine daily departures from the airport, subject to expected FAA approval. Groundbreaking on a new passenger terminal is scheduled for next month.
Brett Smith, chief executive of New York-based private equity firm Propeller Airports, the developer of the passenger terminal, said Wednesday that Alaska is only the first airline to commit to starting service out of Paine Field. He expects more to come.
“We have interest from a number of carriers,” Smith said in an interview. “I’m confident there will be more than Alaska by next year.”
The new terminal will be relatively small, with just two airport gates. With typical turn times that means the peak capacity of the airport will be roughly 16 flights per day.
Alaska didn’t disclose which cities it plans to fly to, but in a blog post on the airline’s website, John Kirby, vice president of capacity planning, said the service out of Paine Field will include “daily, nonstop flights to some of our most popular destinations.”
Flights to Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles would likely attract good traffic out of Everett.
In a news release, Alaska said north Puget Sound area travelers “could shave up to 80 minutes off their airport commute, during peak traffic congestion,” by using Paine Field rather than driving down I-5 to reach Sea-Tac airport.
Propeller CEO Smith said he expects to see “a lot of West Coast flying” out of Paine Field – “Anything west of the Rockies is fair game.”
Paine Field was originally constructed in 1936 during the Depression, eight years before Sea-Tac was built during World War II.
It’s currently used by Boeing for test and delivery of its widebody jets and by private owners of small general-aviation airplanes. It’s also home to a major aviation-maintenance facility for commercial airliners and several flight schools.
The site is a major regional tourist attraction as well. Visitors flock to the Future of Flight aviation exhibition and the associated Boeing factory tour as well as to Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection of wartime airplanes and the Historic Flight Foundation’s collection of antique planes.
Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said that having the region’s largest airline be the first to announce scheduled passenger service from Everett “confirms the value commercial flights will bring to the local economy.”
However, there is still opposition.
After the Federal Aviation Administration in 2012 cleared the way for commercial passenger flights out of Paine Field, some local residents concerned about traffic, noise and property values joined with the city of Mukilteo and unsuccessfully sued the agency.
Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson said Wednesday she’s “disappointed” by Alaska’s decision, which she described as premature because one potential legal obstacle remains – though a slender one.
In addition to losing the federal case against the FAA, the city of Mukilteo sued Snohomish County in state court, where both a King County Superior Court judge and the state Appeals Court ruled in favor of the county.
Gregerson said her city has appealed that last decision to the state Supreme Court, which will decide this summer whether to hear Mukilteo’s appeal.
Still, she seemed resigned Wednesday to dealing with commercial air service coming to Paine Field.
Gregerson said the city has been in protracted discussions with Propeller on how to mitigate the effects of the project if it goes forward, and has found the developer responsive.
She said Propeller has agreed to limit the number of flights to a maximum of 22 per day and to restrict commercial air operations to the hours from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
In addition, Propeller has given the city $94,000 for transportation mitigation.
Also, Snohomish County will invest $1 million in the Harbour Reach Corridor Project, a new $16 million arterial road parallel to the Mukilteo Speedway, she said.
Propeller’s Smith said all the local regulatory requirements for the terminal have now been dealt with, including final mitigation of a stormwater issue raised by one local resident.
The only remaining government approval needed is for the FAA to clear the airline to fly out of a new airport.
Alaska Senior Vice President Joe Sprague said the airline does not anticipate any difficulty with that.
He said Alaska is aware of the opposition by some residents to developing Paine Field.
“Airport and airplane noise has been an issue for decades. It is a relevant issue,” Sprague said. “We are trying to work with neighborhood groups to understand their concerns and to mitigate them.”
New passenger terminal
Alaska plans to start passenger service flying Embraer 175 regional jets, which seat 76 passengers and will be operated by subsidiary Horizon Air, as well as larger Boeing 737 aircraft seating up to 189 passengers and operated by the mainline carrier Alaska Airlines.
The plan by Propeller Airports to develop a passenger terminal at Paine Field was approved in 2015 by Snohomish County, which owns the airport.
Propeller has paid for the design and all the environmental studies and mitigation necessary and is also paying for the terminal’s construction and operation – an investment Smith said is worth “north of $30 million.”
Propeller will lease the terminal for an initial 30 years, paying the county about $430,000 per year plus a share of the revenues: 2.5 percent for the first five years and 5 percent thereafter.
Smith said that at peak capacity of around 16 flights per day he anticipates roughly 1,000 passengers per day in and out of the airport, or about 300,000 per year.
That compares to some 45.7 million last year at Sea-Tac.
Alaska said “1 million residents of northern King County, Snohomish County and surrounding communities” could benefit from service out of Paine Field.
Smith, who is moving from New York to Seattle in July “to make sure it’s done right,” promised a “personal touch” for passengers at the small airport, with a high ratio of airport staff to passengers.
“We’re very much focused on the customer experience,” Smith said.
The plans at Paine Field are too small-scale to have a major impact on the hectic growth at Sea-Tac airport, which has for a couple of years been the fastest-growing large airport in the U.S.
“The region is growing so much. The economy, jobs, population, everything is on the increase,” said Alaska’s Sprague. “Sea-Tac is today the primary commercial airport for this region and will be for generations. It’s our No. 1 hub.”