By Bill Sheets Herald Writer
EVERETT — Commercial airline service will not hinder the Boeing Co.’s operations at Paine Field, according to a letter the company sent to county officials Thursday.
That marks the first time Boeing has weighed in on the debate over whether passenger flights should be allowed at the Snohomish County-owned airport.
Although the company did not advocate for airline service, the letter to County Executive Aaron Reardon and County Council Chairman Mike Cooper was welcomed by supporters who want to see the airport become a regional alternative to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
It was also a blow to the argument of opponents who had claimed that commercial flights could interfere with the operations of the largest private employer in the county.
Boeing accounts for only a tiny percentage of the flights from Paine Field, wrote Ross Bogue, vice president and general manager for the 747 program and commercial airplanes at Boeing’s Everett site.
“Consequently, we believe Boeing would not be negatively impacted by the addition of commercial air service to Paine Field,” Bogue wrote.
People who live around the airport have long been opposed to commercial flights, because they’re worried about noise and other problems.
Meanwhile, Horizon Air and Allegiant Air are in negotiations with the county seeking to start service at Paine Field.
Reardon, who has sided with people who oppose adding commercial flights, said the county has known for three years that Boeing wouldn’t be hurt if airlines started using the airport.
“Their findings were not a surprise to us at the county,” Reardon said.
Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson, who supports the commercial flights, said it’s good that Boeing has waded into the debate.
Supporters of passenger service say it would help the county’s economy, primarily by making flying more convenient for business travelers and others in the region’s growing population.
“I appreciate the fact they’ve made their position known,” he said. “I’m just generally pleased that their voice has been heard.”
For the past three years, the community has debated the issue of commercial flights at the airport.
Mukilteo and south county cities have led the opposition, while the county business community has beat the drum in favor. Some cities, notably Everett, weigh in on the side of passenger flights.
Until now, Boeing has remained mostly silent.
If passenger service was added to Paine Field, Boeing flights would only account for 1 percent of the flights from the airport based on a 2002 projection of operations, Bogue wrote.
Boeing came to this conclusion early in the debate but studied the issue in more detail this past year and its findings reinforced its earlier conclusion, said Peter Conte, a company spokesman. The study was completed late in 2008, which accounts for the timing of the letter, he said.
Boeing’s primary concern is ensuring the airport receives federal funds for airport improvements, Bogue said.
If Snohomish County were to refuse airline service at Paine Field, the Federal Aviation Administration could withhold funding.
Most of the federal tax money the airport gets pays for runways and runway-related improvements.
“This ongoing funding is absolutely critical and cannot be put at risk,” Bogue wrote.
Cooper agreed with Reardon that the letter was not news to him.
“There’s nothing really in that letter that surprises me or causes me to shake in my boots, I guess,” said Cooper, who also opposes commercial service at the airport.
Reardon and Cooper both said the county is negotiating in good faith with the airlines. That’s the primary condition for retaining federal airport improvement money.
Federal rules require airport operators to provide space, if available, for passenger service for air carriers. The law does not require airports to pay for terminals or other improvements.
Paine Field’s terminal is tiny and some type of larger structure would be needed for commercial air service.
Cooper said the county has applied for up to $50 million for the airport under the planned economic stimulus package of President-elect Barack Obama. This money would speed up runway-related projects already planned.
Although Boeing may not be affected by passenger flights, other businesses that use Paine Field might be, Cooper said.
“There are other businesses out there we have to consider as well,” he said.
Timeline of the Paine Field commercial flight debate
2002: A Snohomish County study concludes that passenger flights at Paine Field would be good for the county’s economy. The airport includes the possibility of commercial air service in its estimates for future air traffic.
2005: The study and air traffic estimates are discussed in presentations to groups by airport officials, setting off opposition to passenger flights in surrounding communities.
2005: County Executive Aaron Reardon assembles a panel of officials and businesspeople to review a 1970s agreement between the county and cities aimed at discouraging commercial flights.
2007: The panel’s 188-page report concludes that the agreement can’t be used to limit passenger flights at the airport, but that airport operators are under no obligation to pay for improvements for airlines.
2007-2008 Passenger service supporters, primarily in the business community, begin to organize and speak up.
2008: Allegiant Air of Las Vegas and Horizon Air of Seattle send letters to Snohomish County indicating interest in operating flights at Paine Field.
2008: Mukilteo hires Strategies 360, a Seattle consulting firm, to fight the plans by the airlines.
2009: Boeing says commercial flights would not interfere with its operations at the airport.
Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or email@example.com.