Snohomish County and FAA play hardball over Paine Field

Two top Snohomish County officials have been told by an FAA official that possibly millions of dollars could be withheld from the county-run airport until an agreement is reached with Horizon Air for regular commercial service at Paine Field.

The pressure apparently is aimed at speeding up talks with the Seattle-based airline, which has asked to start service at Paine Field as soon as April 1.

The Port of Everett also stepped into the airport controversy Tuesday by saying it would be glad to build and operate a passenger terminal at Paine Field if Snohomish County doesn’t want to do it.

“If it pencils out as a profitable venture, I would be in favor of it,” said Phil Bannan, chairman of the port commission. “I would consider it strongly.”

County Council Chairman Mike Cooper said the port building a terminal is unlikely to happen.

“If we’re going to have an airline in here the best option is for us to own the terminal,” he said.

Cooper also blasted the Federal Aviation Administration for threatening the airport’s funding.

“It seems to me that we’re being, to use strong words, blackmailed by the FAA, and I’m frustrated by it,” Cooper said. “I would hope that at some point our congressional delegation would step in and tell the FAA to back off and let us negotiate (with the airlines) in good faith.”

Carol Suomi, manager of the Northwest FAA office in Renton, made the statement about the funding to a member of Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon’s staff, county spokesman Christopher Schwarzen said.

Suomi declined to comment on Tuesday, referring inquiries to an agency spokesman who could not confirm that the comments were made.

Under federal aviation law, the federal government can withhold funds for airports that do not negotiate in good faith to provide space for any air carrier to operate who wishes to do so.

Paine Field has received about $60 million in federal funding in its history. County officials, along with Boeing, a major tenant of the airport and the county’s largest private employer, say that money is crucial for the airport’s operations.

Cooper and other county officials say they’ve been living up to those responsibilities, though Reardon has expressed frustration with what he calls a lack of direction from the council. Cooper has said the council has been communicating with the executive on the matter.

Another statement regarding funding was made by an FAA official to airport director Dave Waggoner, according to an e-mail Waggoner sent to county officials.

The county has asked the federal agency to put its statements in writing, Schwarzen said.

So far, the comments from the federal agency have all been verbal, he said.

Suomi also told Michael Deller, president and chief executive of the Bank of Everett, that funding for some projects would be withheld until an agreement is reached with Horizon. Deller called her to confirm a rumor he’d heard, he said.

“She was quite open and quite direct with me about the status and the direction,” said Deller, who supports scheduled passenger flights at the airport.

Money for runway rehabilitation — the airport is seeking funds for a $50 million makeover of the main runway and taxiway — would not be affected, Schwarzen said.

Still, the withholding could apply to money that could come from President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package, the county and Deller were told by Suomi.

The county wants $70.4 million from the economic stimulus package for eight different projects at Paine Field, including $66.7 million for runway and taxiway renovation projects.

Others on the list include $1.7 million for an access road on the west side of the airport; $500,000 for a de-icing facility; $600,000 for a snowplow and $900,000 for a fire engine. It could not be determined on Tuesday which of these projects might be in jeopardy.

Horizon Air and Allegiant Air of Las Vegas each last year told the county they wanted to start using Paine Field for regular commercial flights.

Many residents who live near the airport oppose the idea because they say it would increase traffic and noise and would lower the value of their homes. Supporters of commercial service say it would help the economy. Some believe the county is dragging its feet.

The county and the two airlines held preliminary discussions during the second half of last year but no formal agreements were reached.

Horizon wrote a follow-up letter to the county Dec. 17 informing the county that its earliest start date was April 1, spokesman Dan Russo said.

“It wasn’t like a demand or anything,” Russo said. “That was as soon as we would be ready to do anything.”

Horizon has no problem with the pace of negotiations and has made no complaints to the FAA, Russo said.

He said meetings have been held once a week for each of the past two weeks and “and we have them scheduled weekly until we get there.”

Regarding the port, Cooper pointed to legal advice the county received that it would have more control over airline operations if it built the terminal itself rather than having it built by airlines or another outside party.

Port commissioners Bannan and Connie Niva told the port’s director to look into the idea after supporters of commercial service at the county-run airport asked the port to become involved.

Today the County Council may consider a resolution stating that if the decision is to build a terminal, it ought to be the county that builds it.

Niva noted that neither Reardon nor the council appear to be in support of commercial flights at Paine. “Nobody wants to be in front of it and it keeps getting passed back and forth to the council and the executive,” she said.

Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or

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