Commercial flights are in our best interest

The FAA has released its Final Environmental Assessment (EA), examining a two gate terminal for commercial air service at Paine Field. Like the draft EA issued in 2009, this report finds no significant impacts. Now the Snohomish County community has an opportunity to build a consensus around commercial air service based on these findings. Or those opposed can continue fighting, paying lawyers to continue appeals intended to delay and deny commercial service. Acknowledging the passions around this issue, it is time to move forward and put this issue in our rearview mirror. It is in the best interest of the region, state and nation to move forward with a proposal for two gates at Paine Field.

The FAA study is the latest in an extraordinary body of work examining environmental impacts associated with aviation at Paine Field over the past 25 years. This includes various Paine Field Master Plan updates and noise studies, the Boeing Master Plan for Boeing’s facilities expansion to build the 777 and other aircraft — including extensive transportation improvements serving Paine Field and southwest Everett, the Southwest Everett/Paine Field Master Plan and EIS, as well as Washington State Department of Transportation studies referenced later in this article.

The big picture — jobs

Paine Field is the heart of the nation’s aerospace industry. It is the home of Boeing’s Everett plant, the largest manufacturing center in the world. Paine Field generates the largest economic impact of any airport in Washington state — greater than Sea-Tac. That economic value, and the aerospace industry, is dependent on continued FAA funding to maintain the airport’s operations. FAA funding is, in turn, dependent on allowing commercial air service.

Approximately 40 contracts have been executed between the FAA and Snohomish County regarding funding for the airport. All of them contain a provision (“Grant Assurance 22(a)) which requires the County to “make the airport available as an airport for public use…including commercial aeronautical activities offering services to the public … .” In June of 2008, the FAA wrote a letter to the county reminding the county of its obligations under federal law, and instructing the them to negotiate in good faith with commercial air carriers. Failing to do so “… may subject the county to an enforcement action …” under federal law (FAR Part 16), according to the FAA.

In addition, Snohomish County has agreements with Boeing requiring the county to solicit FAA funds for the airport. In a 2009 letter to the county, Boeing stated “… we believe Boeing would not be negatively impacted by the addition of commercial air service at Paine Field.” The letter went on say: “This on-going funding is absolutely critical and can not be put at risk.”

Creating conflicts and uncertainty regarding FAA funds essential to aviation and aerospace manufacturing is unwise, and an unnecessary risk to our economy and job base. Not allowing commercial service limits the economic capacity of Paine Field to support job creation and retention in Snohomish County.

Capacity at Paine Field

The Washington State Department of Transportation Aviation Division has conducted two significant studies that inform the issue of commercial service at Paine Field. The “Long-Term Air Transportation Study” (LATS) and the Aviation Planning Council were commissioned by the Legislature and published their findings in July 2009. The Aviation Planning Council examined aviation capacity needs to the year 2030 for all 138 airports in Washington state. In 2012, WSDOT (with support from the FAA) published the “Aviation Economic Impact Study” measuring economic impacts for all of Washington’s airports.

The Aviation Planning Council found that Paine Field was operating at approximately 48 percent of its capacity. The council specifically examined Boeing’s impacts at Paine Field and found that a conservative estimate of Boeing’s theoretical maximum production for all aircraft manufactured at Everett would require approximately 2 percent of Paine Field’s capacity. In addition, commercial service for two gates would amount to approximately 5 percent of Paine Field’s capacity. Cumulative operations would not exceed 60 percent of Paine Field’s current capacity.

Demand for commercial service

The Aviation Planning Council found that “future aviation capacity constraints will occur within the time frame … (2030), primarily in the Puget Sound Region … (SeaTac)” and that “… commercial service is available at other airports in the Puget Sound Area: Snohomish County/Paine Field, Olympic Regional, King County International/Boeing Field and Bremerton National airports depending on the interest of major airlines.”

These findings are generally consistent with other studies examining the market for commercial air service. They generally conclude that commercial demand exists at Paine Field, particularly for service to regional destinations such as Spokane, Boise, Portland and west coast destinations such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Denver and Hawaii. Two gates will likely meet this demand to 2030 and beyond.

Not Sea-Tac north

Concerns have been expressed that commercial service at Paine Field will open the door to “Sea-Tac north.” The market for commercial air service simply does not justify that concern. The LATS/Aviation Planning Council concluded the market is limited, and that conclusion is consistent with other independent market studies.

The proposal being studied by the FAA for two gates is similar to facilities at Bellingham, Yakima, Walla Walla, Wenatchee and other small regional airports. These types of facilities have served their communities well with few challenges. They have added significant economic value and provided their citizens with a portal to the nation’s air system.

The citizens of Snohomish County, and, for that matter, Skagit and north King County, deserve an alternative to Sea-Tac and Bellingham for air travel. The aerospace industry needs the certainty of continued FAA funding for Paine Field and will also benefit from improved access to the nation’s air system. The local economy will be enhanced with improved air access. We cannot afford to continue spending public dollars fighting this battle.

The findings contained in the EA should serve as the road map for developing two gates at Paine Field. We should come together as a region to develop the project, responsibly address any impacts, and coordinate land use around the airport. It is the better path.

About the author

Paul Roberts is a member of the Everett City Council. He works for BERK, the firm that conducted the Aviation Economic Impact Assessment; served as Vice Chairman of the State’s Aviation Planning Council; was responsible for the Southwest Everett/Paine Field Master Plan and EIS; and the Boeing Master Plan EIS for 777 plant expansion. His views are his own.

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