Emails raise questions on delay of Paine Field report

EVERETT — Federal Aviation Administration managers last year expressed frustration with Snohomish County government for trying to delay findings about commercial airline service at Paine Field to keep the issue from surfacing during the election season.

A decision about commercial passenger flights at the county-run airport, originally expected in 2010, is now more than two years overdue.

High-ranking officials in the FAA’s Seattle District Office sent multiple emails about the timeline slipping, including one on April 6, 2011, from the manager of the Seattle district office.

“The airlines have been very patient, and I would not want to add a 6 month delay just because somebody is concerned about his re-election,” Carol Suomi wrote to colleagues. “For every politician that may not want it released, there may be a politician that would want it released. We have to be neutral on this one — as much as we can. Just something to think about. It has been a long haul.”

The most pointed emails never mention any politician by name. At the time, County Executive Aaron Reardon, who oversees Paine Field, was running for a third term in office. The airport director reports to the county executive’s office.

Reardon’s staff said there was no political interference.

The documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Everett radio stations KRKO (1380 AM) and KXA (1520 AM). An initial story was first published Wednesday on EverettPost.com, a website affiliated with the radio stations. The stations’ managing editor, Andy Skotdal, wrote the article and provided copies of the emails to The Herald.

County airport director Dave Waggoner said he never wanted to see Paine Field “become a political football.” Waggoner said he expressed concerns to the FAA about the review becoming an election issue that would affect airport operations and staff.

“I was concerned about how the election would impact the airport, not the other way around,” Waggoner wrote in an email Wednesday. “Snohomish County’s position, and my direction from the Executive Office, is to stay out of the way and let the FAA lead. They are leader in this environmental review and we are a party to the process.”

The decision on commercial service at Paine Field rests with the FAA.

Peter Camp, an executive director for Reardon, supervises airport issues. His boss, Deputy Executive Gary Haakenson, has previously been on record opposing commercial flights at Paine Field.

Haakenson said he took the position while he was mayor of Edmonds but he’s stayed clear of offering an opinion since joining Reardon’s staff in 2010.

He also said he’s had no direct involvement with the consultant’s review of noise and other possible impacts passenger service would create.

The county originally contracted for the review with the Barnard Dunkelberg Co., an aviation planning firm with offices in Tulsa, Okla., and Denver, Colo. That firm this year merged with engineering firm Mead &Hunt, headquartered in Madison, Wis.

To date, the consultant has been paid $654,000, with $608,000 directly from the FAA, Waggoner said.

The prospect of flying commercial jets from Paine Field has stirred up strong feelings since it arose back in 2008. That’s when Allegiant Air and Horizon Air wrote letters to Snohomish County asking to accommodate passenger service from Paine Field.

An environmental study followed in 2009. The FAA collected about 900 public comments in January 2010. The FAA initially forecast a decision within a couple of months.

Earlier this year, the FAA announced that it expects a decision by mid-September. That will be followed by a 30-day period to comment on the additional analysis undertaken since 2009. A final determination is expected at the end of November.

An FAA spokesman on Wednesday said the delay reflects the work that needs to be completed.

“The delay is a direct result of the time required to respond to the large number of comments received on the draft (environmental assessment) as well as the need to perform additional analysis on changed baseline conditions,” said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the FAA’s Western-Pacific division.

The FAA emails obtained by Skotdal, who favors commercial service, include numerous reasons for the delay.

In a February 2012 email to managers, an FAA environmental protection specialist offered up this list: “poor performance on the consultant’s part, need to further analyze airport capacity, and a sponsor’s desire to not have this become an election issue.”

The sponsor here is Snohomish County government.

The same specialist elaborated on the election concerns.

“Airport advised Seattle ADO (Airport District Office) that they did not want the start of commercial service to become an election issue and said it was ‘Okay’ if we delayed past November. We told them that we could not do that under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) and that we needed to simply follow the process. Continued delay occurred due to poor consultant performance.”

An assistant manager for the FAA in Seattle in February said the agency was tasking Paine Field “with monitoring their consultant much more closely” and would be “prepared to step in and write it ourselves if need be to meet schedule.”

Questions about commercial service at Paine Field may not have had much bearing on last year’s county executive’s race. Reardon won a decisive victory for a third four-year term in office.

Despite an often rancorous campaign, there was some agreement on commercial flights from Paine Field. Reardon, a Democrat, and his opponent, state Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens, both said they opposed the idea.

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

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