Low passenger turnout has caused many flight and route cancellations for Paine Field. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Low passenger turnout has caused many flight and route cancellations for Paine Field. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

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Paine Field passenger volume plummets; flight changes likely

Despite a 68% drop, the passenger terminal’s owner expects to weather the coronavirus crisis.

EVERETT — Three weeks ago, the new passenger terminal at Paine Field was celebrating its first anniversary and one millionth traveler. Parking was scarce.

Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, the terminal’s check-in area and four parking lots are nearly empty. So empty that parking is now free.

Propeller Airports has suspended parking fees through April 5. The privately held company built and operates the two-gate terminal under a lease agreement with the airport owner, Snohomish County.

“Business has fallen off a cliff, sadly,” said Brett Smith, Propeller’s CEO, noting that the decline is happening across the entire travel sector, devastating previously thriving airlines.

Still, Smith said he’s confident that the terminal will be able to weather the crisis.

Last month, more than 70,000 people took a commercial flight to or from the Everett airport. But in recent days, passenger volume has fallen by more than two-thirds.

“We’re down about 68%,” Smith said. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is reporting a similar dropoff.

Combined, Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, which share the terminal, are limited by federal regulators to 24 departures and 24 arrivals per day at Paine Field. Alaska operates 18 of those round trips. United Airlines reduced its schedule this year to three daily nonstop flights to Denver, a major hub.

Both Alaska and United say they will continue to operate their schedules despite the coronavirus crisis. However, both carriers have canceled flights in recent days, according to flightradar24.com, which tracks airplane traffic around the world. Anecdotally, Everett travelers tell of flights that carry only a handful of passengers.

Terminal operations, including baggage handlers, restaurant services and airline staff, employ about 300. The Beecher’s cafe inside the terminal is open for takeout. McGee Air Services, which handles ground operations at the airport for the two carriers, continues to maintain normal staffing levels, about 70 workers.

“We are still handling Alaska and United flights out of Paine Field,” said Jason Berry, McGee’s president. “The situation has been very fluid and we are evaluating our customers’ needs daily in order to keep our company at the right size to deliver safe and on-time operations.”

Alaska said it expects to announce schedule changes across its network in a week to 10 days.

Snohomish County is “actively exploring options” — including advocating for potential congressional action — to support businesses at Paine Field that are feeling the strain of the coronavirus outbreak, county Executive Dave Somers said in a statement.

“Paine Field is responsible for nearly $60 billion in economic activity annually, while also providing air travel to over 1 million passengers in the last year,” Kendee Yamaguchi, the county’s executive director of economic development and trade, said in a statement. “We are very aware of our responsibilities in managing this public asset. We know that many of the companies leasing land from us are being hit particularly hard by COVID-19. We are in this together and will recover together.”

Now there’s a chance that all activity at this and other airports could come to a screeching halt.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that major U.S. airlines are drawing up plans to potentially shut down “virtually all passenger flights across the U.S.”

By mid-week, other media were reporting that U.S. lawmakers might offer the passenger and cargo airline industry a $32 billion stimulus package.

Besides travel restrictions and passenger counts that have fallen by as much as 80% at some airports, the nation’s air traffic controllers have been hit hard by COVID-19 infections. About a dozen control facilities across the U.S. have so far been temporarily closed to be cleaned and disinfected, “with many more employees at home on self-quarantine,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

It’s unclear whether Alaska and United will maintain a full schedule at Paine Field.

Airlines and airports around the world are struggling, including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which is reporting a 68% drop in passenger traffic.

Passenger counts have plummeted at Sea-Tac, airport director Lance Lyttle said.

“This time last year 50,000 passengers would be headed through security checkpoints at SEA at the beginning of the spring break travel season,” Lyttle said in a Port of Seattle newsletter. “Right now, the airport is averaging 16,000 passengers through the checkpoints. The decline in passengers impacts every business and worker that depends upon the airport economy for their livelihood.”

At Bellingham International Airport, Allegiant Air temporarily suspended all flights on Tuesday due to the U.S.-Canada border closure. Allegiant said the majority of its Bellingham customers are travelers from Canada going to California, Arizona and Alaska.

Across the U.S., passenger volume is forecast to fall nearly 70% from March through June, year over year, according to the Airports Council International-North America and the American Association of Airport Executives.

U.S. airlines are cancelling flights and grounding planes at an unprecedented rate. Thousands of flights have been canceled.

In a March 16 investor update, Alaska Airlines said it’s reducing capacity in April by at least 10% and in May by at least 15%. It plans to continue, however, to monitor demand and will reduce capacity on a rolling 15-day basis as needed. Alaska CEO Brad Tildenand President Ben Minicucci reduced their base salaries to zero, effective March 7.

United Airlines is cutting capacity 50% in April and May. Load factors, which normally hover around an average of 80%, are expected to “drop into the 20-30% range — and that’s if things don’t get worse,” CEO Oscar Munoz said in a company news release.

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

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