Mayor calls Alaska’s plans for Paine Field ‘premature’

City hoping state’s high court agrees to here terminal project appeal
By Nicholas Johnson | May 18, 2017
Photo by: Nicholas Johnson Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson called Alaska Airlines’ plans to offer flights out of Paine Field premature during a press conference Wednesday afternoon, May 17. The city is hoping the state Supreme Court will agree to hear its appeal of Propeller’s terminal project planned for the Snohomish County Airport.

After Alaska Airlines announced plans May 17 to offer nine flights per day out of Paine Field beginning in fall 2018, Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson called a press conference.

Standing in front of City Hall on Wednesday afternoon, Gregerson told reporters those plans are premature, particularly as the city continues its legal fight against efforts to bring commercial air service to the airport next door.

“My community was developed with a promise that Paine Field would remain an airport for the aerospace industry, and for Boeing and for education,” she said as planes from Paine Field flew overhead.

After Snohomish County entered into a 30-year option-to-lease agreement with New York-based Propeller Airports in March 2015, the city and others appealed that decision in state and federal courts. Though it has lost each key court battle since, the city has one shot left: an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“We are actively appealing the environmental determination that allows terminal construction,” she said, “and we expect a decision from the state Supreme Court on whether to accept our appeal sometime this summer.”

If accepted, it would take months to hear arguments and render a decision, she said.

“If we win that appeal – which is obviously my hope – it could force the entire project back to the drawing board,” she said.

Propeller CEO Brett Smith says the company plans to break ground on the 11-acre site at Paine Field in early June. The county issued a grading permit in April, but has yet to issue a building permit, as the company has not yet submitted building plans for its proposed 29,000-square-foot, two-gate terminal.

“Filing a lawsuit is a waste of taxpayer money,” Smith said. “I don’t want to fight with the city of Mukilteo. I’d rather work out a deal.”

Over the last few months, Smith has made several trips from his home in New York to visit with Gregerson in Mukilteo.

“I have personally gone out of my way to spend time with her and a council member, in the spirit of cooperation, to do things that are above and beyond what we have to do,” he said.

“This project is for the entire county. We will do everything in our power to do what’s in the best interest of our neighbors, and that includes Mukilteo.”

Gregerson said those meetings have been productive.

“We’ve had a lot of conversation about the limits and constraints that we could put on air service if it has to move forward,” she said.

Still, she said the city’s ultimate goal is to stop the project.

“Part of our concern for a long time has been that once you open that door to commercial air service, you can’t shut it again,” she said. “I think most of our residents would be opposed to Sea-Tac North – a really big airport. Our residents deserve to have their city government protect their quality of life, and that’s why we’ve been engaged in this battle for a long time.”

Earlier this year, the county required that commercial pilots avoid routes over residential areas and not fly late at night or early in the morning.

“We have also demanded traffic mitigation if the project moves forward,” Gregerson said, “and the city has received county funding for projects that would be impacted by the airport.”

Paine Field currently sees more than 300 flights per day, largely from general aviation and aerospace activity.

“We’re talking about adding maybe 20,” Smith said. “And it’s not like we’re adding bigger aircraft. We could start flying today and nobody would know the difference.”

Smith said it’s unfair to suggest Paine Field’s commercial operations would be comparable to those of Seattle-Tacoma International, which sees some 42 million passengers per year.

“Everybody’s afraid that this could be Sea-Tac North, but it’s not,” he said. “While Alaska is planning nine flights a day at Paine Field, nine flights take off every minute at Sea-Tac.”

Smith said a second carrier is likely to emerge, though it likely won’t be Allegiant Air, which has been flying out of Bellingham International Airport since 2008. Allegiant had been interested in flying out of Paine Field until the last year or two. Spokesperson Hilarie Grey said the airline hasn’t been engaged in such discussions for a while now.

Smith said he expects the terminal will operate at a peak of 16 flights per day, despite the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) 2012 decision to limit the project to roughly two-dozen. All together, he said the terminal would serve about 1,000 passengers per day, or 300,000 per year.

“Sea-Tac does roughly 115,000 passengers a day,” he said. “They do more in three days than we’ll do in a year.”

With Sea-Tac being the fastest growing large airport in the U.S., Alaska CEO Brad Tilden said now is the time to expand service north of Seattle.

“As our region continues to grow at a record pace and Sea-Tac Airport nears capacity, the time is right to bring air service to our valued guests living in the North Sound,” he said.

Paine Field is home to the Boeing Everett Factory, along with a major aviation maintenance facility and several flight schools. It was constructed in 1936, some eight years before Sea-Tac, with the intention of becoming a commercial airport but, due to its use by the Air Force during wartime and opposition from neighboring communities, that never happened.

Alaska plans to begin flying out of Paine Field, pending FAA approval, using a mixture of Boeing 737 and Embraer 175 jets. While Alaska won’t announce specific routes, flight schedules or ticket prices until early 2018, John Kirby, vice president of capacity planning, said the Seattle-based airline expects to serve some of its most popular destinations, such as Portland, Oregon.

“We’re not quite ready to share details of the routes,” he said. “But I can tell you they won’t be limited to short, regional flights.”

Smith said, “anything west of the Rockies is fair game,” including destinations in western Canada.

“You could see Canadian flights,” he said. “The reason you could see that is because you don’t have customs requirements on our side of the border.”

The new flying is expected to take hundreds of cars off the road each day, cutting greenhouse emissions while adding convenience for the “more than one million residents of northern King County, Snohomish County and surrounding communities.” Everett residents, for example, could reduce their airport commutes by up to 80 minutes during peak traffic congestion.

One of those residents is George Tsoukalas, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Snohomish County. He’s an Alaska MVP Gold and Million Miler who flies an average of 1.5 times each week.

“Personally, I’ve been looking forward to this,” he said. “It’s not just the traffic driving through Seattle, but the inconsistency of it. Some days it might take me 40 minutes to drive to the airport, other days it takes 70 minutes.”

Tsoukalas has even resorted to driving 65 minutes to Bellingham to catch flights. Though it’s a longer drive than it would be to Sea-Tac in good traffic conditions, the drive time is more consistent.

“Flying from Paine Field will allow me to schedule my time more efficiently,” he said. “As a business traveler, that makes a big difference.”

County Executive Dave Somers said Snohomish County welcomes Alaska’s service.

“Businesses will have easier access to major markets and leisure travelers can skip the commute down south, saving time and fuel,” he said.

Soon enough, however, traffic congestion on I-5 may not be such a barrier, Gregerson said.

“Things change,” she said. “The long drive to Sea-Tac one day could be accomplished on a light rail train that’s not even affected by traffic. So some of the constraints that we see today may change in the future, and then different types of questions will be asked.”

Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said the homegrown airline’s interest in flying out of Paine Field “confirms the value commercial flights will bring to the local economy.”

The 30-year lease option comes with two optional 10-year extensions. Once signed, the lease would require that Propeller pay roughly $430,000 in yearly rent to the county. It would also require Propeller pay the county 2.5 percent of its gross revenue over the first five years, and 5 percent after that.

Adding up design, environmental studies, mitigation efforts, construction and future operating costs, Smith said Propeller’s total investment in the project is “a bit north of $30 million.” The project, he said, has depended entirely on private funding.

“I think it’s a big benefit to the traveler when the private sector, who needs to make returns, does a project like this,” he said.

Smith said his goal is to provide exceptional customer service.

“Because it’s a small terminal, it’ll enable us to really cater to Alaska’s customers – and any other airline’s customers, for that matter – and provide a very enjoyable experience,” he said.

Smith said he expects to hire at least 20 employees to work at the terminal. He also said he plans to relocate to Seattle this July to better oversee the project.

“We want happy customers,” he said. “We want people to use our terminal and we want to serve them.”

For her part, Gregerson said the city of Mukilteo wants happy residents. That means continuing to fight a project she contends wasn’t properly vetted for its potential impact on noise, traffic and property values under the state’s Environmental Policy Act.

“Through that law, there’s an environmental review where somebody who wants to do something new has to assess all of the possible impacts and assess what would happen if they didn’t do the project,” she said.

“The county didn’t do that, and we thought they needed to do it at that time before they locked in with Propeller. That’s what we’re appealing.”

Comments (1)
Posted by: Joe Kunzler | May 19, 2017 06:59

Nicholas;

Thanks for doing such an in depth report on Paine Field's future.  It's important the unofficial Paine Field newspaper of record please stay on this.

V/r;

Joe



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