Way cleared for commercial flights at Paine Field

EVERETT — Soon, there could be an air bridge from Everett to Las Vegas.

Federal aviation officials on Tuesday gave their final word on whether noise, traffic and pollution from commercial passenger flights at Paine Field would harm communities around the airport. Their answer — as stated in two earlier reports — is no.

That decision clears the way for two airlines to fly from Paine Field: Allegiant Air of Las Vegas and Horizon of Seattle. Both airlines asked in 2008 for permission to use the airport.

Still, jets haven’t been cleared for takeoff just yet.

The city of Mukilteo, which has long opposed commercial flights, likely will appeal the decision in federal court, Mayor Joe Marine said. Appeals must be filed by Feb. 2, 60 days after the decision.

“We’re certainly not surprised by the ruling; it’s kind of what we expected,” he said.

Snohomish County, which owns and operates Paine Field, still must study the airlines’ flight plans under a separate state environmental process.

County officials wouldn’t venture a guess on Tuesday as to how long that will take. The study by the Federal Aviation Administration took more than three years.

The airlines also will need a terminal, which has yet to be built. It will be one of the issues studied under state environmental rules, officials said Tuesday.

Before flights can begin, both airlines need to obtain operating certificates for operating out of Paine Field, and the county needs a certificate authorizing commercial flights at the airport, according to Tuesday’s FAA decision.

Whether the certificates can still be issued while an appeal is pending was unclear on Tuesday.

Much of the new 175-page report consists of comments submitted after the FAA’s previous report in September, and the agency’s response to those comments.

“We’re encouraged,” said Todd Brunner, owner of Brunner Construction in Lynnwood and co-chairman of the pro-flights group Citizens Right to Fly from Paine Field. “We’re glad to see three years of study and comment finally come to a conclusion.”

The county should be able to adopt much of the information on noise, traffic and pollution from the federal study in its environmental review, County Councilman Dave Somers said.

This would speed up the process, reduce costs and increase the likelihood of approval.

The terminal would then be the only new issue to be studied. The county in 2009 put forth preliminary sketches for a small, modular terminal just big enough to handle flights for the two airlines. The airlines would finance the building with fees paid to the county, officials said three years ago.

Somers said he doesn’t believe the terminal would raise any significant environmental issues, “but the law is a funny thing,” he said.

Somers, who favors flights at the airport, said he wasn’t surprised by the FAA’s decision.

“That’s such a busy airport anyway that what we’re talking about is such a small percentage of what happens there,” he said.

The airport was built in the late 1930s. It primarily has served military operations, Boeing service and test flights, aircraft maintenance businesses and small, private planes. Except for a short period around 1950 and again briefly in the late 1980s, Paine Field has not had commercial passenger service.

Allegiant originally 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.

Officials with Horizon, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines, said in September they were no longer interested in using Paine Field because of the economic recession and because of improvements at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. If another airline were to begin service in Everett, however, the company could change its mind again, airline officials said Tuesday.

“Alaska Airlines believes the Puget Sound region is best served by Seattle-Tacoma International Airport,” said Andrew Harrison, Alaska Airlines’ vice president of planning and revenue, in an email statement.

“Adding commercial air service to a regional airport located 42 miles away from the state’s largest airport — and an hour’s drive from Bellingham International Airport — is not a good alternative for our region,” he said.

Still, Harrison added, “if a competitor begins commercial service at Paine Field, we would respond by adding flights using both a Bombardier Q400 turboprop and Boeing 737 jet.”

Allegiant uses Boeing MD-class jets. Allegiant still wants to come, a spokesman said — meaning that both airlines could wind up serving the airport after all.

If both airlines were to proceed as planned, 23 more flights per day would use Paine Field by 2018. Based on this number, the effects on surrounding communities would not be significant, according to the FAA.

“The biggest problem and contradiction going on here is that federal law allows for unrestricted growth at the airport,” said Greg Hauth of Save Our Communities, a Mukilteo-based citizens group that has opposed flights for years. “The (FAA’s study) is based on a tiny sliver of aircraft operations.”

“This fight is not over, it’s really only beginning,” Hauth said.

County Council president Brian Sullivan, a longtime opponent of flights, said the court could overturn the FAA’s environmental ruling and require a more extensive study.

On the other side, Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson issued a statement applauding the decision.

“Commercial air is necessary for economic development and job growth,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll soon be working with a company to provide commercial air at Paine Field.”

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

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