EVERETT — A formula that determines how much emergency aid U.S. airports receive during the COVID-19 crisis could deprive Snohomish County’s Paine Field of hundreds of thousands of dollars — if not millions — in stimulus money.
The U.S. Department of Transportation on Tuesday announced $10 billion in funding for the nation’s airports under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a stimulus program that includes funding for commercial and some general-aviation airports.
Commercial airports around the U.S. received grant amounts based on how many passengers they served in 2018. That leaves Paine Field out in the cold. Airline service at the Snohomish County-owned airport didn’t begin until March 2019.
In Washington, 62 airports will receive in all more than $310 million. Paine Field will receive $157,000. Arlington Municipal Airport and privately owned Harvey Airfield in Snohomish each will receive $69,000. The Port of Friday Harbor and Orcas Island airports will receive about $1 million each.
Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell brought up the issue on a call Tuesday with Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. “She has been in contact with both Snohomish County and the airport regarding the issue,” a spokesman with Cantwell’s office told The Daily Herald.
The grants are intended to support continuing operations and replace lost revenue from a massive decline in passenger traffic and other business. Funds can be used for airport capital and operating expenses, including payroll, utilities and debt payments.
“This $10 billion in emergency resources will help fund the continued operations of our nation’s airports during this crisis and save workers’ jobs,” Chao said Tuesday in news release.
Due to the formula, Paine Field’s share of $157,000 is skimpy compared to other airports.
Bellingham International Airport, for example, will receive $5 million. That terminal served 710,000 passengers in 2018, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
The Everett passenger terminal, which is privately owned and operated by Propeller Airports, served more than a million travelers during its first year of operation.
Paine Field airport Director Arif Ghouse said the county is “acutely aware of how painful this pandemic has been for our residents, either those directly impacted by COVID-19 or indirectly due to the significant economic shock. We know unemployment has skyrocketed and many aerospace companies, including those at Paine Field airport, have either partially or totally shut down.
“The new commercial terminal at Paine Field is paying a heavy price for the disruption of the travel industry,” Ghouse said. “We will continue to explore whatever legal options are available to us. We value our partnership with Propeller and our other tenants and will continue to work with all of them on potential relief.”
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Aviation, said Paine Field could receive additional relief.
“We had to create a formula for airport funding that applied as broadly as possible,” Larsen told The Herald.
“Putting in one exemption would have created a million exemptions and delayed passage of the bill,” Larsen said. “We are looking at the CARES package 2.0 and a way to fix this. There seems to be support to fix this. We’ll be back at it. It’s not over.”
Commercial airline traffic has plummeted during the COVID-19 outbreak, with bookings down more than 70% at some U.S. airports, including Paine Field and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which expects to receive $192 million in stimulus aid.
Said airport director Ghouse: “The legislation encourages airports to use the funding either to support employment or for other operational purposes. This funding represents 0.3 % of our $50 million annual budget, and we will put it to very good use. Since we just received official notice of the grant, we don’t yet know precisely how the resources will be spent. However, we expect that CARES Act resources will be directed towards helping us retain our essential employees and continue our operations. Since we have approximately 70 tenants and hold 480 leases, we must be equitable in how we support businesses at Paine Field.
“If we defer one tenant’s rent, we would be obligated to defer all tenants’ rents. We must be equitable,” Ghouse said.
The Federal Aviation Administration is encouraging airports to spend the grant funds immediately to help minimize any adverse impact from the current public health emergency.
Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert said the city plans to use its grant money to complete several infrastructure projects slated to begin this summer, including new taxiway lighting. The emergency grant will fully fund those projects. In normal times, the city would be required to contribute a portion of the project’s funding, Tolbert said.
Washington is home to 138 public airports. The state’s commercial airports employ 269,000 workers and generate more than $37 billion in annual economic activity, according to the Airports Council International-North America.
Janice Podsada; firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods