Dueling surveys find far different views on Paine Field

Two surveys that attempt to gauge public opinion regarding opening Paine Field to commercial airline service, done for groups on opposite sides of the issue, have come to — drum roll, please — differing conclusions.

One, done for the pro-flight group Fly Paine Field, found that most of those who responded said they’d like to be able to board a passenger jet at the Snohomish County-run airport.

In the other survey, done for the city of Mukilteo, most said they don’t want themselves or anyone else boarding commercial jets at Paine Field.

While the latter survey was paid for out of a $250,000 kitty, much of which is going to a popular political adviser, the other cost $3,000 and was done through Survey Monkey, an online survey research tool.

The surveys are the first attempts to measure public opinion since Allegiant Air of Las Vegas sent a letter last spring to Snohomish County asking to operate flights from Paine Field.

Earlier this month, Horizon Air became the second airline to queue up for a chance to fly passengers to and from the airport. The surveys were taken before Horizon’s proposal was announced.

Both airlines would like to start service next year.

No public vote has been taken on the issue.

Each of the surveys provides an incomplete picture, says one neutral observer and those working for the opposing groups. Conversely, those who conducted the studies say they provide some indication of where the public stands.

The online survey for Fly Paine Field found that 71 percent favored flights at the airport.

“I could say anecdotally based on what we were seeing that there is overwhelming support in Snohomish County for (air passenger) service, no question about it,” said Rick Cocker, a principal at Cocker Hennessy, the Seattle firm that did the online survey for Fly Paine Field. The pro-flights group is made up largely of businesspeople from around the county who support commercial flights at the airport.

The survey was done using Survey Monkey between Aug. 29 and Sept. 19, and received 887 responses.

In the other survey, done by phone, 53 percent of the respondents in south Snohomish County — the area affected most by noise from Paine Field — said they oppose flights at the airport.

“It shows a fairly clear opposition” to passenger service at the airport, said Al Aldrich, senior vice president for Strategies 360, a Seattle consulting firm working for Mukilteo.

The firm has been hired by Mukilteo to help fight the proposal by Allegiant Air. The city is paying Strategies 360 from a $250,000 war chest it set aside last year to fight any plan for flights.

“I wouldn’t say it’s overwhelming,” Aldrich said of the survey’s conclusions regarding air service, “but it’s a fairly clear opposition to it.”

The survey asked questions of 500 registered voters in late July. The survey was done by DMA Market Research of Seattle for Strategies 360.

The fact the surveys were done by public relations firms on behalf of interest groups raises the possibility that the questions and methods are steered toward a particular outcome, said Jim Hebert, president of Hebert Research in Bellevue.

“You’ve got a PR firm to use the research to advance a political or particular community issue. That’s a problem,” he said.

To make their surveys valid, firms need to separate their research departments from the promotional ones, Hebert said. Hebert’s firm has been doing research for 30 years and counts Microsoft, Pepsi and Costco among its clients.

The Paine Field surveys asked many other questions in addition to for-or-against. Both asked respondents how often they fly, their experiences with getting to and flying from Sea-Tac Airport, and their ZIP codes.

Aldrich said the phone survey is more valid than the online survey because it took a random sample of residents. The phone survey has a margin of error of 3 ½ percent to 4 percent, he said.

“People who are professional pollsters generally don’t hold online surveys in very high regard because it’s self-selected participation,” Aldrich said. “That is like comparing an apple with a fake, wooden orange.”

By contrast, with the phone survey, “you end up getting a pretty good crosscut,” Aldrich said. “The vast majority of surveys done in America are done by phone.”

Invitations to complete the Fly Paine Field online survey were sent to registered visitors to the group’s Web site, chambers of commerce, economic development groups and others. A link to the survey was also posted on the Fly Paine Field Web site.

Greg Tisdel, one the leaders of Fly Paine Field, said it wasn’t just businesspeople who took the survey. Responses to the survey from the Web site spiked after it was given media attention and the group bought some radio advertising, Tisdel said. These responses made up more than half of the total, he said.

“You could go online and take it any time you wanted,” Tisdel said.

Cocker said the online survey wasn’t meant to be scientific.

“I would simply take it as an expression of the numbers of people who were interested enough to go online and express their view,” he said. “We weren’t saying it’s a scientific survey by any means.”

He noted the other study was conducted only in south Snohomish County.

“So it has the same kinds of shortcomings that ours does,” he said. “We got a lot of responses from south Snohomish County, including from Mukilteo.”

Cocker said the most accurate survey would be to take a sampling from the whole county.

Hebert said a survey doesn’t provide a complete picture unless the results stand up under other methods.

“The test for it is, can it be replicated? If it can’t be replicated, it’s not science,” Hebert said. “It needs to stand up to different survey methods.”

He said the problem with online surveys is that “we really have no control over when those are being done and you can’t really authenticate if it’s the right person responding to the survey.”

On phone surveys, he said, care must be taken to “monitor how they’re done, to evaluate the credibility of the respondent.” For example, if the person says he’s 19 years old and has a doctorate degree, “most likely that’s data that’s going to get thrown out,” he said.

What about a countywide vote on the issue?

“I would love it,” Tisdel said. “That would be the best thing and the wisest tax dollars spent by the city of Mukilteo or Snohomish County. That would be great.”

Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine was a little more equivocal.

“I don’t know. I guess it would give a chance for both sides to explain what they would want. It’s ultimately up to the County Council.”

Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or sheets@heraldnet.com.

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