EVERETT — A commercial airline wants to bring passenger flights to Paine Field for the first time in years, changing the long-running debate over the airport’s role from hypothetical to real.
Allegiant Air, a Las Vegas-based airline that currently operates flights out of Bellingham, this week sent a letter to Snohomish County expressing interest in doing business at the airport.
In the beginning, the airline would fly only to Las Vegas two to four times a week from the county-owned airport, but could eventually add service to other West Coast cities, a spokeswoman said.
“Our analysis shows (Paine Field-area) demographics to be attractive, especially in light of transportation problems getting from the area north of Seattle to the existing airport at Sea-Tac,” wrote Robert Ashcroft, Allegiant Air’s vice president for planning, in the letter to the county, received Thursday.
Allegiant Air could consider adding flights from Paine Field to Reno, Nev.; Phoenix, Ariz.; San Francisco, San Diego and Palm Springs, Calif. Allegiant Air currently serves four of these cities from Bellingham and plans to add service at that airport to San Diego and San Francisco in June.
Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon and County Councilman Brian Sullivan wasted no time in issuing a joint statement Friday opposing the idea. County Councilman Mike Cooper also has expressed opposition to passenger flights at Paine Field.
Reardon said he would ask county attorneys to review the request.
“I do not support bringing commercial air service to Paine Field,” Reardon said in the statement. “We will proceed cautiously and investigate all steps that might be taken to prevent it.”
Sullivan, who lives in Mukilteo, is a former mayor of that city and represented the area in the state Legislature. Mukilteo has led the opposition to any passenger service at Paine Field.
“I’ve opposed commercial air service at Paine Field for 25 years,” Sullivan said.
Tyri Squyres, a spokeswoman for Allegiant Air, said the airline is aware of the opposition.
“We definitely respect all the comments they’ve made, but we will continue to pursue coming into the market,” she said. “We feel this is a good market and we definitely will continue to pursue it.”
Two years ago, Reardon appointed a panel of elected officials and business leaders to update a 1970s agreement guiding use of Paine Field. The group found that an airport operator can’t legally prevent airlines from using the airport for passenger flights but also is under no obligation to recruit airlines or to pay for improvements to facilitate service.
“The main obstacle to Allegiant Air service from Paine Field is the lack of a usable passenger terminal,” Ashcroft wrote in his letter to the county. He added, though, that in other cities the airline has seen terminals created out of modular buildings and double-wide trailers.
Allegiant Air’s letter is the first expression of interest by any airline in recent years in providing service from Paine Field. The airport currently serves private planes, Boeing and Goodrich Corp. operations, and occasional military and diplomatic flights.
The issue of commercial service arose six years ago in county studies suggesting that passenger flights at the airport could help the county’s economy. People from Mukilteo, Edmonds and other south Snohomish County cities opposed the idea.
They worried more flights — and the noise from the planes — would harm neighborhoods and reduce property values. That only a few flights a week would use the airport offered no comfort to opponents.
“We call it the camel’s nose under the tent,” said Greg Hauth of Mukilteo, president of Save Our Communities, which has led the opposition. “Once you start, these things can just go and go and go from there.”
Hauth expressed skepticism the flights would be good for the economy.
“They’re just going to export gamblers who should be going to the Tulalip casino and ship them out of the area,” he said. “You’re exporting dollars and you’re creating a huge liability. It’s not helping anybody.”
Some business leaders and leaders of the county Republican Party believe otherwise.
An Everett-based business advocacy group, the Private Enterprise Coalition of Snohomish County, pledged last year to spent $100,000 to promote the cause and started a Web site, FlyfromEverett.org.
Greg Tisdel, owner of Tiz’s Doors in Everett and a spokesman for the business group, applauded the news of the airline’s interest but is aware of the opposition.
“It’s going to be interesting to watch and see if the (county) council really cares about economic development,” Tisdel said.
Studies at other airports have shown, Tisdel said, that commercial flights bring in money to local economies. He pointed to a study of the San Francisco airport that concluded 10 more flights per day there added $23 million to the area’s economy.
The city of Mukilteo last year set aside $250,000 to fight any plan for passenger flights.
“We’re hoping not to have to tap that” to fight the Allegiant Air proposal, Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine said Friday. “I appreciate (Reardon’s) stance on this and his leadership. And having Brian Sullivan on the council now, we know where he stands on it.”
Allegiant Air flies Boeing MD-80s, which first came into service in 1980, according to the company’s Web site. The planes carry 130 to 150 passengers. According to several sources, the planes are quieter than Boeing 727s and 747s, but not as quiet as the newest aircraft.
In all, Allegiant Air flies 37 of the planes to 53 cities, including Orlando and St. Petersburg, Fla.
“We really look at the leisure customers, not the business customers,” she said.
The airline maintains a base in Bellingham, keeping two of its planes there along with pilots and crew. Since 2006, its service from Bellingham has grown from two flights per week to Las Vegas to 10, Squyres said.
Many Bellingham-area customers come from Vancouver, B.C., she said, adding that the airline wouldn’t run that many flights from Everett.
“Everett would be ideal for us in the sense that it is one of the smaller communities that currently don’t have a cheap and easy way to fly,” Squyres said. “We definitely want to be respectful to the process, and we definitely want it to be something that the community wants. The people generally really embrace the idea of having a great resource.”
Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.