Paine Field airline flights now up to county

EVERETT — With the federal government’s permission for commercial passenger flights at Paine Field, the baton has been passed to officials in Snohomish County.

The agency that owns and operates the airport must put together its own study under state environmental law to provide the final word on whether Allegiant Air and Horizon Air can begin flights.

The study will take roughly six months, said Peter Camp, an executive director at the county who oversees the airport. Camp briefed County Council members on the issue Monday.

He said he will choose a consultant before the end of the month to do the study, subject to council approval.

The primary challenge to address is building a terminal, Camp said. The airport office building currently has a small waiting area that isn’t large enough to handle passengers for the flights proposed by the airlines.

While County Executive Aaron Reardon and some council members have publicly opposed passenger service, the county can’t stop it without jeopardizing funds the airport receives from the U.S. government for maintenance and other projects.

Allegiant proposed to start running four flights per week from Paine Field and increase to 20 over five years. Horizon asked to run 140 commuter flights per week from the airport. Altogether, this would amount to 23 flights per day as soon as 2018.

Horizon officials in September said they were withdrawing their interest in the airport, citing the economic recession, improvements at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and commitments to other markets.

They also have said, however, that if another airline were to begin service at Paine Field, Horizon would follow suit.

Camp said he’s briefly spoken with representatives from both airlines to confirm their interest. Allegiant is still planning to fly from Paine Field, he said. With that, he said, he’s taking Horizon’s position as a “yes.”

After a three-year study process, the Federal Aviation Administration determined last week that the flights would not significantly increase noise, traffic or pollution in surrounding neighborhoods.

The city of Mukilteo disagrees and is planning to fight the FAA’s decision in federal court, Mayor Joe Marine said. He said the City Council will have to give the go-ahead on the appeal. No more council meetings are scheduled for the remainder of the calendar year, so the council either will have to call a special meeting to address the issue, or wait until its next scheduled meeting Jan. 7, Marine said.

Anyone wishing to file an appeal has until Feb. 2, or 60 days from the FAA’s decision, to do so.

Camp said if an action is filed, it does not automatically hold up the county’s environmental study timeline.

The airlines first asked the county in 2008 for permission to fly from Paine Field. In 2009, the county released conceptual plans for a small, modular terminal with a roughly $3 million price tag.

County officials said at the time that taxpayer money would not be used to build a terminal.

Camp said after Monday’s meeting the county would finance the terminal with parking and passenger fees. If one or both airlines were to pull the plug on service before the building is paid off, they’d still be on the hook for the remainder, he said. Details still need to be negotiated.

The federal environmental study did not address the terminal, so it will have to be covered by the county review. Otherwise, county officials will look at which parts of the federal study may be transferable to the new study, Camp said.

He was uncertain as of Monday whether the county would take bids for the consultant work. For the federal study, the county contracted with the Barnard Dunkelberg Co., an aviation planning firm with offices in Tulsa, Okla., and Denver. That firm this year merged with engineering firm Mead &Hunt, headquartered in Madison, Wis.

The company was paid $654,000 for the study, with $608,000 directly from the FAA, county officials said.

Herald reporter Noah Haglund contributed to this story.

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

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