Endgame near on airport flight debate?

  • Thu Feb 4th, 2010 10:35pm
  • News

By Bill Sheets Herald Writer

Hundreds of people over the past month have voiced their opinions at meetings or through letters on air passenger service at Paine Field.

Today is the last day to submit comments on an environmental study on airline service. Next week, federal aviation officials will begin sifting through the roughly 700 comments to decide if more issues should be addressed.

This will take at least until March and probably longer, said Cayla Morgan, an environmental protection specialist at the FAA’s Northwest Mountain regional office in Renton.

If they do order more work, Morgan said, the odds are against it becoming the high-end review being called for by those who oppose regular commercial flights at the airport.

The 86-page study was done in response to two proposals of service by two airlines. Horizon Air of Seattle wants to fly four times a day to Portland, Ore., and twice per day to Spokane, using 75-seat Bombardier Q400 turboprop airplanes on both routes. Allegiant Air of Las Vegas has said it plans to fly twice a week to Las Vegas, using 150-seat McDonnell Douglas MD-83 jet aircraft.

The study concluded that this number of flights would not significantly affect noise, air quality or auto traffic in the communities around Paine Field.

The airport, owned and operated by Snohomish County, currently caters mostly to private planes, flights to support Boeing operations and occasional military flights.

The environmental assessment, as the study is called, focused on the effects of the flights proposed by the two airlines so far over a five-year period.

Because federal law says an airport operator may not ban further flights once the airport begins commercial service, the study should have examined that ultimate-case scenario, said Greg Hauth, vice president of Save Our Communities, a Mukilteo-based group that has led the fight against commercial service.

Morgan said if another airline were to request service, another environmental review of some type could be done on that plan, depending on the proposal. If an airline such as Horizon or Allegiant were to decide to expand its operations and add flights, however, no study would be required, she said.

That’s the problem, Hauth said.

“We call it incrementalism,” he said. “It’s really disingenuous to say we’ll do another environmental assessment if another airline comes in when the current airlines can expand without limit.”

Because the study doesn’t address the potential for additional flights, an environmental impact statement — the most thorough type of environmental review — should be required, Hauth said. It should consider potential effects for 20 years out, he said.

Morgan said in the 20 years she’s been doing her job, she’s never seen an EIS ordered following an assessment of the type done for Paine Field.

“That’s not to say that it hasn’t happened,” she said.

Further study within the environmental assessment process, however, has occurred often, she said.

Morgan said about 10 people in the FAA’s Renton office, including herself, were involved in the original decision to do an assessment rather than an EIS.

“We understand generally what this type of increase would result in,” she said.

On the other side of the issue, flight proponents testified and submitted comments on the study as well. The group Fly Paine Field rounded up experts in areas such as auto traffic and land use and had an attorney look over their written comments, said Greg Tisdel, a spokesman for the group.

Their experts agreed with the study’s conclusions that the flights would cause little effect on traffic and air quality around the airport, Tisdel said.

Noise, he said, “is just one of those things that’s subjective to some folks.”

Allegiant and Horizon submitted their requests for service at Paine Field in May and October 2008, respectively. Spokespeople for the two airlines said this week they are still interested in providing service at the airport.

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

Have your say

Today is the last day to comment on the draft environmental assessment done regarding commercial air service at Paine Field.

The study is available at www.painefield.com

Written comments may be sent to airserviceeacomments@snoco.org or cayla.morgan@faa.gov.