The new passenger terminal at Paine Field in Everett has two gates. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The new passenger terminal at Paine Field in Everett has two gates. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Paine Field is cleared for passenger takeoff, FAA says

After years of planning and litigation, airlines can begin service at Everett’s new terminal.

EVERETT — Federal regulators on Wednesday approved the start of commercial air service at Paine Field, giving a green light to long-sought passenger flights from a new two-gate terminal on the east side of the airport.

The decision means Alaska Airlines and United Airlines can begin operations at the Snohomish County-owned airport as planned. The two carriers are offering a combined 24 daily departures from Everett, with Alaska beginning service on March 4 and United starting March 31.

The Northwest Mountain Region headquarters of the FAA issued a “finding of no significant impact” that clears the way for the airport to be certified for air carrier operations and for the airlines to fly their proposed routes.

“We’re pleased the FAA has completed this process,” said Brett Smith, president and CEO of Everett-based Propeller Airports, which built and will manage the new Everett terminal. “We’re excited to get underway.”

The start of airline service here has been much anticipated. Travelers won’t have to spend up to 90 minutes in Seattle traffic getting to or from Sea-Tac Airport, which is some 40 highway miles south of downtown Everett. And a small but plush new terminal should make travel by air less onerous.

Alaska plans 18 flights a day — to Portland, Los Angeles, San Jose, Orange County, San Francisco, Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix. United will have six flights to its major western hubs — four to San Francisco and two to Denver. Both carriers will fly twin-engine Embraer 175 regional jets.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s blessing was a final hurdle after years of planning and litigation. The approval involved an amended environmental assessment that looked at the impact on traffic, noise and other factors.

The FAA approval isn’t a surprise. A draft of the assessment was released last fall, and it found “no significant issues” that would require a more-involved environmental impact study. But the agency needed to review public comment before issuing a finding, and the partial government shutdown delayed the process. Key FAA employees were on furlough for more than a month.

When the government shutdown ended last month, work resumed at the FAA, leading to Wednesday’s decision.

A few procedural steps remain, an FAA spokesman said Wednesday.

Propeller Airports must complete payment of mitigation fees totaling about $642,000 to Snohomish County, the Washington State Department of Transportation and the city of Mukilteo. The company already has paid more than half the required fees to offset traffic impact, the report said.

Brett Smith, CEO of passenger-terminal developer Propeller Airports, inside the new building on the east side of Paine Field in Everett. (Janice Podsada / The Herald)

Brett Smith, CEO of passenger-terminal developer Propeller Airports, inside the new building on the east side of Paine Field in Everett. (Janice Podsada / The Herald)

The FAA must amend Paine Field’s airport operating certificate to allow for the commercial service to begin. Airport officials requested an amendment immediately after the FAA released its final decision.

And the agency must amend the operations specifications for Alaska Airlines and United Airlines to authorize them to operate at Paine Field.

“We’re excited to get going,” Paine Field Airport Director Arif Ghouse said Wednesday.

“This is going to be convenient for the community and a boon for economic prosperity for the county,” Ghouse said.

“It’s been a huge project to ready the airport,” Ghouse said. The airport has added about 30 new employees for security and firefighting.

In a separate decision Wednesday, the Transportation Security Administration approved the airport’s security plan.

From now until March 4, “it’s just a matter of fine-tuning” and attending to details related to the start of commercial airline service, Ghouse said.

Alaska Airlines started taking reservations in mid-November, and United followed suit at the end of that month. With regulatory approval in a holding pattern, though, Alaska announced on Jan. 22 it would delay flights by three weeks. Ticket holders were offered refunds or departures from Sea-Tac Airport.

Alaska Airlines declined to comment.

United Airlines confirmed Wednesday that it still is planning to begin service on March 31. “This is something we’ve been looking forward to,” spokesman Jonathan Guerin said.

“The start of commercial passenger service at Paine Field is excellent news for Snohomish County and the Puget Sound region,” Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said.

“We appreciate the hard work of our airport staff, Propeller Airports, the FAA, TSA, Alaska Airlines, and United Airlines,” Somers said. “Not only does commercial service bring convenience to those wanting to travel, it will also make us a more attractive place for investors.”

The new passenger terminal at Paine Field, the Snohomish County-owned airport in Everett. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

The new passenger terminal at Paine Field, the Snohomish County-owned airport in Everett. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Passenger service at Paine Field has been a long time coming. It’s a tangled tale.

The idea has been around for decades, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that airlines considered it seriously. The city of Everett commissioned a study in 2007, and the next year Allegiant Air and Alaska subsidiary Horizon Air expressed interest. County and city elected officials, however, were somewhat at odds about commercial air service at Paine Field, and it was another four years before it seemed like it might happen.

In 2012, the FAA completed an environmental assessment that was required to approve Paine Field for air carrier operations. The assessment for up to 12 flights a day concluded there would be no significant impact, and after weighing public comment, the agency concurred. By then, Horizon Air had said it was no longer interested, but Allegiant was still game.

There was opposition, however. Noise was a major concern. The city of Mukilteo and a group called Save Our Communities sued in federal court to challenge the integrity of the FAA environmental review, but before that litigation could be resolved, Allegiant Air withdrew, having failed to come to terms with the county on building a terminal.

Without a passenger terminal, it looked like airline service at Paine Field was dead.

Then, in 2014, a private company called Propeller Airports approached the county, expressing interest in developing a terminal. The two parties eventually signed a lease agreement. Propeller would build the terminal on county property and operate it.

With that news, the city of Mukilteo and Save Our Communities revived their federal lawsuit challenging the FAA environmental approval, and they also separately challenged the county’s lease agreement with Propeller, seeking judicial review in King County Superior Court.

They lost the lawsuit in 2016 at the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the request for judicial review failed in 2017, when the state Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of lower court decisions in favor of Snohomish County.

There was one more snag. As work on the terminal began in earnest, the FAA entered the picture again last year. The authority of the 2012 environmental study had expired, and Alaska and United planned twice as many flights, using different aircraft. So the FAA began working on the amended environmental assessment. With the agency’s “finding of no significant impact” Wednesday, Paine Field now is nearly certified for air carrier operations.

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097. Twitter: JanicePods.

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