Court to hear appeal over Paine Field passenger flights

SEATTLE — A court hearing this week could chart the path for passenger flights out of Paine Field.

At issue is a federal aviation study from late 2012 concluding that noise, traffic and pollution from commercial jets would not harm nearby communities.

Mukilteo is leading a group of opponents challenging the decision at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If they prevail, the Federal Aviation Administration would have to perform more analysis, which could further delay, or even stop, efforts to start up commercial service from Snohomish County to destinations such as Las Vegas and Hawaii.

“We think that commercial air service at Paine Field would have a significant impact on our community,” Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson said. “We hope that the court will agree and will make the FAA redo their environmental assessment.”

A hearing is scheduled Wednesday in Seattle before a three-judge panel. A decision could take months.

Joining Mukilteo in the appeal are the city of Edmonds and Save Our Communities, a group of residents opposed to commercial air service. Their appeal was filed in January 2013.

Two airlines since 2008 have actively sought permission to fly from the Snohomish County Airport, though one has all but lost interest. The FAA study, three years in the making, was based on the number of flights the airlines said they wanted to operate.

Allegiant Air of Las Vegas originally proposed four flights per week from Paine Field, increasing to 20 over five years. It’s not clear what the carrier has in mind now.

“We are interested, but have no definitive plans,” Allegiant spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler said.

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines had asked to run 140 Horizon commuter flights per week from the airport.

In 2012, Alaska Airlines officials said they were no longer looking at Paine Field, partly because of improvements at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. That remains the case. The airline also flies out of Bellingham.

“It really makes sense for the region to look to Sea-Tac as the main airport,” spokesman Paul McElroy said. “Between those two airports, unless a competitor were to come in, we’re really not interested in serving Paine Field.”

While Mukilteo leaders like Gregerson are determined to keep Paine Field from hosting regular passenger jets, Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson welcomes the prospect.

“This will never be anything more than a regional airport, but it’s important that we have this asset if we’re going to grow this economy,” Stephanson said. “When we are recruiting companies to be here, it is one of the top five questions we get asked: ‘Do you have scheduled air service?’ When the answer is ‘no,’ that’s really a negative to our recruitment efforts. I’m hearing that on a fairly regular basis.”

The president of a neighborhood group formed to oppose commercial flights at Paine Field the said FAA’s study “opens the door to unrestricted growth of commercial flights in the future.”

It didn’t account for incremental expansion of service, said Mike Moore of Save Our Communities.

“Promising to do little add-on studies in the future is inadequate,” Moore said.

The group wants the agency to look at the realistic impacts if a passenger terminal were to run at full capacity.

If left unchecked, Moore worried that the growth in jet traffic could interrupt the airport’s bread and butter: aerospace manufacturing and general aviation.

Stephanson disagreed.

“That’s nonsense,” he said. “We have an airport that is 40 percent utilized. The Boeing Co. is on record as saying they don’t oppose commercial air passenger service.”

Airlines would need a terminal to run passenger flights from Paine Field.

The county last year turned down a proposal from Allegiant to build it. The airline offered to pay for construction, but wanted the land for free, without a lease. The county said allowing one airline to build and operate the terminal would have provided an unfair advantage over competitors.

Stephanson said he’d like to see a private company build and operate a passenger terminal. If none steps forward, perhaps the city and the Port of Everett could take the initiative.

“That’s certainly an option that we’ve talked about and should be considered if there’s no private-sector interest,” he said.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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