Rejecting an airline could prove costly

EVERETT — In October 2002, a small plane was forced to abort a takeoff at Paine Field and rolled off the south end of the runway.

Eight people were on board the Cessna Citation 500. The plane skidded 700 to 800 feet and came to a stop.

No one was hurt.

If the incident had taken place a few years earlier — before a ravine at the south end of the runway was leveled off and planted with grass — “it likely would have been a very different outcome,” Paine Field aviation director Dave Waggoner said.

The plane probably would have wrecked and broken up, he said.

That lifesaving level area was built as part of a roughly $20 million project over five years from 1996 to 2001 to put safety zones at the ends of the airport’s three runways. The money came from federal taxpayers.

It’s money for safety projects such as runway expansion and maintenance that Paine Field would lose if it were to say an absolute “no” to a commercial airline that wants to add passenger service to the airport.

Those projects benefit not only the smaller planes, but the big birds.

“We feel that that funding is vital to the airport’s future operation,” Boeing spokesman Peter Conte said.

For the first time in 11 years, a commercial air carrier has expressed interest in flying from Paine Field. Allegiant Air, based in Las Vegas, wrote a letter to Snohomish County last month asking to operate two to four flights per week from Paine Field to Las Vegas. The airline already operates several flights a week out of Bellingham.

A majority of Snohomish County officials oppose the idea of allowing commercial service from the county’s biggest airport, and told the company so.

Mukilteo and several south Snohomish County cities also are fighting against the Allegiant request, saying noise from the added planes would harm their quality of life.

The county’s decision to say no without even considering the airline’s request prompted a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration, reminding county officials that it couldn’t just close the door and still expect federal tax money to be spent at the airport.

In fact, the FAA’s grant assurance prohibits the county from discriminating against any type of air service it has the space to accommodate.

While County Executive Aaron Reardon and four of the five members of the council oppose passenger service, there is no way they want the county to pay for airport operations all on its own.

“That’s not going to happen,” said County Councilman Brian Sullivan of Mukilteo, a leading opponent of commercial air service at Paine Field.

“We’re still opposed to commercial air service but we will negotiate in good faith and follow the law,” said Christopher Schwarzen, Reardon’s spokesman.

The airport has received about $60 million in federal funds. Nearly all of it has come since the late 1960s, after Snohomish County took over the airport from the U.S. Air Force.

Money has been spent on a new runway; new taxiways and taxiway extensions; runway repairs and maintenance; lighting, fencing and other equipment; and environmental projects such as wetland relocation.

In the next three years, more than $31 million more in projects are planned, including $20 million to rebuild the airport’s largest taxiway.

As far as its day-to-day operations are concerned, the airport is self-sustaining, Waggoner said. It makes its money from leases to aerospace and aviation-related companies such as Boeing, Aviation Technology Services and others, he said.

“The money that’s generated on the airport stays on the airport,” assistant aviation director Bill Dolan said.

The runways and equipment needed to accommodate large airplanes, however, require more money, and the airport plans ahead to make sure it can meet the needs as they arise, officials said. The airport has to compete for funding under strict guidelines. The time between asking the government for money and actually receiving it can be three to five years, Waggoner said.

The airport creates a long-term plan every five to eight years, in consultation with Boeing and other airport users, and tweaks it as it goes along.

The plan is based on aviation forecasts, done by consultants with input from the airport.

“You have to figure out what the demand and the requirements are of the aviation world and start building in that direction,” Waggoner said.

The most recent federally funded project was $3.5 million for construction of a taxiway at the northwest corner of the airport in 2006. The taxiway not only reaches the Future of Flight museum, which was built the year before, but will make it possible for larger planes to use that area in the future. Another taxiway is planned to connect to that one and extend down the west side of the airport.

It’s not certain if or when that part of the airport will be built out, but if more space is needed for big planes, that’s where they’ll have to go, Waggoner said.

Boeing remains steadfastly neutral about passenger flights at the airport, but the federal funding portion is critical, Conte said.

In fact, according to Waggoner, the county’s pursuit and acquisition of federal funds is written into the contract it has with Boeing, its biggest tennant.

“The airport does need to be able to compete for funding or FAA grants,” Conte said. “That’s a long-standing position we’ve always had; that federal funding is important for that airport.”

Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or

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