EVERETT — One year and one million-plus passengers later, the new airline terminal at Paine Field is humming.
Planes taxi to and from the gates like clockwork. Travelers step up to the bar or stop at Beecher’s Cafe for a bite.
If it’s their first time through, they promise to return. If it’s the third, 10th or 20th time through, they dish about avoiding I-5 traffic and the trip to Sea-Tac Airport, 37 miles to the south.
“I’d rather fly out of Paine and have a layover in Portland than sit in traffic on I-5,” said Wendy Poischbeg, a frequent flyer.
Brett Smith, CEO of Propeller Airports, couldn’t be more pleased. Propeller, a privately owned company, built and operates the terminal at the Snohomish County-owned airport.
He can recall bare soil, rebar and concrete, regulatory delays and a vocal bloc of opponents.
Last month, more than 70,000 people people took a commercial flight to or from the Everett airport. The one millionth traveler passed through the terminal a week before the one-year anniversary.
It was a toss-up which milestone would come first.
“I thought it would be close — the one millionth passenger, the one-year anniversary. One million passengers — and for an airport that’s never been in business before,” Smith repeated.
Two round-trip flights and one million days of free airport parking greeted the winner, Aristotle Roberts, a Lynnwood resident.
Evolution of service
When it opened, he estimated that 40% of Puget Sound area residents knew it existed. Now he’s guessing awareness has risen to 65% or more.
The terminal hasn’t escaped controversy. With the start of air service, noise complaints skyrocketed from about 100 each month to thousands. In December, 3,656 complaints — 62% of which were submitted by just 10 households — were lodged with Paine Field. Because of the spike and hundreds of phony complaints, airport officials changed the way they compiled monthly noise reports, grouping complaints by how they were generated, including third-party mobile phone apps.
One big question that’s up in the air: What happens when United Airlines eliminates three daily flights to San Francisco this month, dropping the allotted number of flights below the federal cap?
Combined, Alaska Airlines and United are limited by the federal regulators to 24 departures and 24 arrivals per day at Paine Field. Alaska operates 18 of those round trips.
United continues to operate three daily nonstop flights to Denver, which like San Francisco is a major hub, but the carrier has been mum about what will happen to the three open slots, which become available this week.
“We are not sharing details about the use of our slots at this time,” United Airlines spokesman Jonathan Guerin said in an email.
Smith says they won’t go unfilled for long.
“Stay tuned. It won’t be long. We’re in discussions with the airlines,” he said.
Smith continues to add new displays inside the main lounge, which everyone describes as reminiscent of a grand hotel, with its soaring windows, leather slingback chairs and fresh flowers.
A pair of deck binoculars from a World War II battleship offers runway and Olympic Mountain views. A new installation, the wing of a 1950s-era French jet, a Fouga CM.170 Magister, occupies a rare, quiet nook in the lounge.
The anniversary celebration will be fairly low key, Smith said. Doughnuts and coffee in the morning, yogurt parfaits in the afternoon. A pianist all day.
The focus is on year two, the next million passengers, Smith said. “If you’ve got some 737s into service, the numbers could go quicker,” he said of Boeing’s top-selling jetliner. For now, both Alaska and United fly Embraer 175 jets, which seat about 75. Boeing 737s can carry 150 or more passengers, and have greater range.
A 737, for example, could fly easily to Hawaii, a destination that “a lot of people have been asking for,” said Smith.
But neither Alaska nor United have announced plans to operate larger planes at the Everett airport — yet.
For one thing, the worldwide shortage of Boeing 737s, from the 737 NG to the grounded 737 Max, has made it nearly impossible for any airline to expand service, Smith said.
“A lot of airlines are struggling for aircraft,” he said.
Down the road, Smith hopes to add a cellphone waiting lot. A study to determine how many jobs air service has generated is underway, Smith said. The terminal has generated about 300 jobs so far.
“The airport has filled a vital role throughout Snohomish County and Puget Sound. I am so proud of that,” he said.
Spreading the word
Throughout the past year, Alaska Airlines executives have repeatedly described Paine Field as a success, which has built a following more rapidly than expected.
“When we think about a new market, the ramp” to full capacity “is usually about three years,” said Bret Catlin, Alaska Airlines managing director of alliances and capacity. “We’re in a year and it’s ramped up quicker than we hoped.”
Paine Field has earned its wings, and now it’s a matter of getting the word out — outside the region, Catlin said.
While residents of Snohomish County and north King County, in particular, have embraced Everett air service, Alaska aims to generate demand on the other end — its destination cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas.
“We want to see awareness outside of Everett, outside of Seattle, improve,” Catlin said. “That’s our No. 1 thing. We want all of the folks at the destinations we fly to, to know this is an option.”
Alaska has said it’s considering using larger airplanes, but not yet.
“It’s not something we’re going to jump into,” Catlin said. “In certain months we’re seeing load factors in the mid-90%. Planes are going out full every day of the week,” he said.
“We want to see that happen more consistently over a period of time,” Catlin said. Alaska doesn’t disclose detailed figures for passenger volume, such as load factor, the industry measure of how full airplanes are.
Flights to Chicago or Dallas, or elsewhere?
“We are interested in growing our operations at Paine Field, but the time frame for that is certainly an open question,” Catlin said.
Janice Podsada; firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePodsada