No subsidies for passenger flights at Paine Field

Taxpayers won’t pay to jump-start passenger flights at Paine Field, Snohomish County Council members pledged on Monday.

That could force Allegiant Air to pay for its own improvements, including a passenger terminal, security checkpoints and parking.

“You name it, they pay for it,” County Councilman Mike Cooper said.

The airline last week sent a letter to the county expressing interest in offering two to four commercial flights from Paine Field to Las Vegas, where the company is based.

Cooper joined Brian Sullivan and Dave Gossett in signing a letter to the airline company saying they opposed the idea of jet service at the airport. County Executive Aaron Reardon also opposes commercial flights at Paine Field.

Several cities already oppose any commercial flights at Paine Field. Mukilteo set aside $250,000 for legal fees to fight any airline coming to the county-owned airport. Sullivan said the county might match that. The county also is expected to set up a Web site informing people about negotiations.

Allegiant Air wants to come to Snohomish County because the demographics are attractive and the commute to the Seattle- Tacoma International Airport is a grind, a company vice president wrote to the county. Initially, the flights would go only to Las Vegas, but they could expand to other West Coast cities.

The opposition effort ramped up quickly. The company wants to profit by harming the quality of life for those living around the airport, Sullivan said. The four-city area includes 118,000 residents.

“Is that good for all of Snohomish County?” Sullivan asked. “I don’t think so. This is the most densely populated part of the county.”

Steve Neighbors heaped criticism on the County Council’s stance. He spoke for himself, but also is a member of the airport committee of the Private Enterprise Coalition of Snohomish County, a business group that has pushed for passenger flights at Paine Field.

“It’s one thing to talk about economic development, it’s another thing to block it like this,” Neighbors said.

Paine Field is a huge county asset, and “it should be used for the benefit of everyone in the county,” he said.

Members of an opposition group, Save Our Communities, turned out Monday to urge the County Council to fight Allegiant Air’s proposal.

“The council is morally obligated to take any and all measures necessary to prevent scheduled commercial service at Paine (Field), regardless of the difficulty and complexity, legal or otherwise,” said Chip Adams of Mukilteo.

Commercial flights don’t belong at Paine Field, some residents said.

“I do not want any more noise out of that airport,” said Ken Brooks of Mukilteo.

Federal law might preempt the county’s ability to deny access to the airport. Even so, the county is not obligated to help.

The federal government has spent $52 million on the airport since 1945. That gives federal authorities leverage over how the airport is used.

The county isn’t ready to turn away federal grants just to buy more independent control over Paine Field, Gossett said.

That move would “effectively close the Boeing Co. down at Paine Field and I don’t think we want to go there,” Gossett said.

“I am firmly committed to doing everything we can to prevent commercial service, but I think we also have to be very cautious that we don’t over-promise what we can do,” he said. “Let’s talk to our attorneys, let’s find out what our legal rights are and then let’s enforce those rights to the hilt.”

Officials prefer to see more high-wage aircraft manufacturing jobs come to Paine Field.

Allegiant Air, which offers flights from Bellingham to Las Vegas and West Coast cities, flies MD-80 jets able to carry 130 or 150 passengers.

The company’s proposal is the third time the idea of passenger flights has arisen at Paine Field. In 1987, San Juan Airlines operated 14-seat turboprop planes from Paine Field. Service lasted about a year.

Horizon Air opened talks for Paine Field flights in 1997 but chose to increase its fleet at Sea-Tac instead.

The current Paine Field terminal is 525 square feet and has room for up to 15 passengers, airport director Dave Waggoner said.

In Bellingham, passengers and the business community say they are very happy with the airport, said Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of the Bellingham-Whatcom Chamber of Commerce. He estimated about two-thirds of the travelers come from Canada.

“It has really provided Bellingham with far better air service than we ought to have for a city our size,” he said.

About two dozen passengers waited in Bellingham International Airport on Monday for a 4:25 p.m. flight to Las Vegas.

Several Canadians said the flights are convenient and easy to reach from their homes in British Columbia.

“We’ve been doing it ever since it started” four years ago, said Elva Termes, 74, of West Vancouver, B.C., who was traveling with her husband, Roy, 82.

Fares for trips to Las Vegas tend to be lower from Bellingham than Vancouver, he said, and the small airport is much easier to negotiate. Parking costs $7 a day, much less than Vancouver, Roy Termes said.

“This is super,” he said.

He believes Paine Field could further tap the Canadian market.

“They should work on something from out of there to New York, the East Coast,” Termes said.

Leanne Kowalyk, 23, of Burnaby, B.C., was one of several leisure travelers returning from Las Vegas to Bellingham — and is the type of traveler Allegiant Air would target for Paine Field.

She goes down with a group of friends once a year, she said, “just to get away.”

Bellingham’s terminal is 27,000 square feet, consisting of one ticket counter, a glassed-in security area, a gift shop-snack bar, a waiting area and baggage claim.

Like Paine Field, Bellingham’s airport was built by the military prior to World War II and was eventually turned over to a civilian government.

The airport is northwest of town, bordered by industrial parks to the east and south, scattered homes, and open space. Some homes in areas with the most aircraft noise were bought out with federal money in the 1970s and 1980s, Port of Bellingham spokeswoman Carolyn Casey said.

Many flights take off and land to the south over Bellingham Bay.

Paine Field, by contrast, is surrounded on all sides by the county’s most densely populated neighborhoods.

Bellingham has 122 scheduled departures and arrivals per week on Allegiant Air and a second airline, Horizon Air, which flies to Seattle. There’s no organized opposition to adding flights, Casey said.

“Sometimes we hear from people concerned about the airport, but it’s few and far between,” she said. “We maybe hear from two or three people a year.”

Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or

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