FAA analysis due on airline flights at Paine Field

EVERETT — An analysis that addresses hundreds of concerns about passenger flights out of Paine Field is expected to be released as soon as Tuesday.

The Federal Aviation Administration responded in the report to 900 comments about the pros and cons of flying commercial jets out of the county-owned airport. The comments were made 2½ years ago by people who attended hearings or wrote to the FAA.

It will be at least until the end of the year, however, before the agency gives a yes-or-no answer about whether flights may proceed.

If the FAA approves the flights, it could be several more months, or longer — after more environmental work and possible appeals — to determine if that decision can stand.

“It will probably take us awhile,” said Peter Camp, an executive director for Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon. He wouldn’t hazard a guess as to how long.

The FAA said that it would email the report to The Herald on Tuesday, but the official release date is Friday. The FAA will collect comments on the report for 30 days after the release date.

The 2010 hearings were held after an environmental study determined that a small number of flights proposed by Horizon Air of Seattle and Allegiant Air of Las Vegas would not significantly increase noise, auto traffic or air pollution around Paine Field.

Each airline asked Snohomish County in 2008 for permission to run flights from the airport. Paine Field primarily serves Boeing operations, aircraft repair businesses and small, privately owned aircraft.

Allegiant Air, based in Las Vegas, proposed to start with four flights per week the first year, increasing to 20 in five years. Horizon, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines in Seattle, proposed to start with 12 flights a day and increase to 20 by the fifth year, or 140 per week.

Snohomish County officials said they could build a small terminal to accommodate the airlines. Proponents of passenger flights cheered the development and set up a website, www.flyfromeverett.org/, around the issue. They say flights here would be a convenient alternative to Sea-Tac and could be good for the county’s economy.

Opponents disagreed with the results of the environmental study, contending that allowing even just a few flights at the airport could open the door to many more in the future, increasing noise and pollution. Their website is http://socnw.org/.

At first the FAA said its response to the comments would be out in two months. But the date kept getting pushed back.

Federal officials said over the course of the 2½ years that the delay was because of staff time needed on other projects; because of a need to be thorough in responding to the comments, and, in a nod to opponents, to address a scenario in which more flights use the airport than proposed.

Internal FAA emails, however, suggested other factors contributed as well.

In a February 2012 email to managers, an FAA environmental protection specialist attributed the delay to “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 is Snohomish County.

Reardon, who was re-elected in November 2011, has said he opposes passenger flights at the airport. His staff said they did not interfere with the process.

The county originally hired Barnard Dunkelberg Co., an aviation planning firm with offices in Tulsa, Okla., and Denver, Colo., to work on the report with the FAA. That firm this year merged with engineering firm Mead &Hunt, headquartered in Madison, Wis.

As of late last month, the consultant had been paid $654,000, with $608,000 directly from the FAA, according to Paine Field director Dave Waggoner.

Snohomish County Councilman Dave Somers expressed concern at a meeting Monday about the possibility the county contributed to the delay.

“Whatever the decision is at the end of the day, it’s not helpful if things are taking artificial timelines or being dragged out,” he said.

Camp said at the meeting that the consultant wanted the comments responded to by subject, because some of the comments made similar points. Staff with the FAA wanted to respond to each comment individually.

“The FAA had one view on that, the consultant had another view on that, we (at the county) were trying to mediate that disagreement and finally it was what the FAA wanted,” Camp said.

Another 30-day comment period will follow the report’s issue Friday, but no new hearings will be held. The agency is then expected to make a determination on whether flights may be allowed at the airport.

After this, however, any dissatisfied party may appeal to federal court, Camp said. The state would then have its turn at environmental review, he said. The earlier study was done under federal rules.

“We’re going to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and do it right,” Camp said.

Reporter Noah Haglund contributed to this story. Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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