An Alaska Airlines plane lands Saturday at Paine Field. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

An Alaska Airlines plane lands Saturday at Paine Field. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Paine Field makes short list of airports that could grow

Arlington’s airport is also in the running, says a state group planning for future air travel demand.

OLYMPIA — Paine Field in Everett is on an early list of airports that Washington officials are eyeing for future expansion to meet air travel demand as the state’s commercial aviation industry recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

A state commission named the Snohomish County-owned airport as one of six potential candidates, alongside Arlington Municipal Airport, Bremerton National Airport, Sanderson Field in Shelton, Tacoma Narrows Airport in Gig Harbor and Ed Carlson Memorial Field in Lewis County.

The state Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission, which made the list public in a recent report, was formed less than two years ago by the Legislature to ensure another Sea-Tac-caliber airport is ready to operate by 2040.

The commission chose the sites based on each facility’s available land, proximity to cities and transportation options and relationships with local governments, as well as any evident environmental concerns.

Commission officials have stressed that the list is preliminary, only including existing aviation centers and not proposed locations for entirely new ones.

“We’re on that short list of potential airports that can accommodate more commercial flights,” said Paine Field Airport Director Arif Ghouse, who sits on the commission. “But we haven’t gone into any depth of analysis to determine what that potential growth might be.”

The privately built and managed airport terminal currently has two gates with jet bridges, as well as an area where passengers can board an aircraft from the pavement, Ghouse said. Those gates can accommodate up to 24 departures a day, although they’ve seen just a fraction of that traffic recently due to the pandemic, he said.

Any conversations about potential expansion would involve Propeller Airports, the firm that built Paine Field’s passenger terminal and has run it since the first flight left its gates in 2019. Expansion talk is also likely to stir renewed opposition by nearby residents who, concerned about noise and traffic, fought the present passenger service for years, ultimately losing in court.

The airport is roughly 1,300 acres, plus some 1,100 more occupied by Boeing. There are about 130 acres on the west side that remain undeveloped, and the county plans to explore whether existing properties might be suitable for redevelopment, Ghouse said.

A “supplemental airport” would require 1,000 to 2,000 acres, according to the commission.

An equivalent to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport could need as many as 4,600 acres.

Demand for airline travel in the Puget Sound region is expected to exceed that airport’s capacity by 2027, analysts have reported. Projections say that passenger enplanements — the number of people departing on a scheduled flight — will more than double in the next 30 years, from 24 million in 2018 to more than 50 million in 2050.

Everett’s Paine Field passenger terminal. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

Everett’s Paine Field passenger terminal. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

The COVID-19 pandemic has stymied passenger travel, dealing major blows to airlines and aerospace manufacturers.

Last March, daily enplanements at Sea-Tac fell to 4,000, about 4 percent of 2019 levels for the same time period, according to the report. Passenger service has since inched upward but remains at one-third of pre-pandemic levels.

Air travel demand likely won’t reach 2019 levels until 2024, though it will still eventually outstrip what’s available now at the region’s airports, the commission reported.

That buys state officials some time to address the complex problems associated with a new airport, from logistical challenges to public opposition.

The best solution, the commission has suggested, is to improve existing airports in the near-term while pursuing plans for a large new airport in the next decade or two.

The commission was initially asked to identify a single location for a new major commercial aviation facility by Jan. 1, 2022. But the group is now proposing that the final recommendation deadline be pushed to 2024.

Next, with the help of a communications consultant, the commission will work on gathering public input, including comments on what measures could be taken to reduce noise, aircraft emissions and other major impacts of a new facility.

Meanwhile, Snohomish County is updating its airport master plan, a blueprint for future development that was adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2003. The revision process, which started in late 2020, is expected to take more than two years and cost roughly $2.6 million, most of which will be covered by federal funding, Ghouse said.

The Puget Sound Regional Council is also exploring potential scenarios for meeting future air travel demand through its Regional Aviation Baseline Study.

“All those things are going to play a role into where we think the airport needs to be five, 10, 15 years down the road,” Ghouse said.

The state commission’s next official meeting will be in the spring, according to a news release. The group will also hold a virtual webinar on federal and state funding at 9 a.m. Feb. 16. For more information, visit wsdot.wa.gov/aviation/commission.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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