EVERETT — For now, the frills are gone.
The giant jar of jelly beans and the grand piano in the baggage area — history. Free parking for ticket holders — also gone.
“We have to make money somehow,” said Brett Smith, CEO of Propeller Airports.
The privately owned company built and operates the passenger terminal at Paine Field, and on Saturday commercial flights return to Everett after a 10-week shutdown for work that replaced the pavement on the aircraft side of the facility.
It will be a slim schedule, just three flights per day between the two carriers that share the terminal’s two gates.
United Airlines will operate one daily flight from Paine Field to its Denver hub. Alaska Airlines plans two flights a day — one each to Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Before the coronavirus pandemic curtailed most air travel, United and Alaska served 11 destinations with 24 departures and 24 arrivals per day.
“I’m hoping they add more flights,” said Smith, who stopped taking a salary in March.
On the plus side, Beecher’s Restaurant and the Upper Case Bar in the terminal’s main lounge, which closed when travel dwindled, will re-open for business. And Smith promises to resume his trips to a wholesale floral market in Seattle for fresh flowers, a lounge staple.
He also promises a relentless cleaning schedule, temperature screenings and has plans to install a hospital-grade air filtration system.
“I fully believe we will lose money for the foreseeable future, and we’re prepared to do that, but we’re going to be the cleanest and safest airport in the country,” Smith said.
He’s not kidding. On a recent afternoon, a maintenance worker roamed the terminal, sweeping the floor of the empty waiting area.
“If you’re not wearing a mask, you’re not allowed in the building,” said Smith. “I don’t care whether you have a ticket or not.”
As if to make his point, he looped a paper mask onto the statue of 2nd Lt. Topliff Paine — the airfield’s namesake — which stands outside the terminal.
Before passengers enter security screening, their temperature will be checked by a heat-sensing camera. In April, before it temporarily closed, the Everett terminal became one of first in the country to install a touchless fever-detection system. If a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or more is detected, the passenger is screened a second time. If they have a fever, the airlines are alerted. From there, “it’s up to the airline to decide what they want to do,” Smith said. The detection system caught the eye of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport officials, who borrowed it while the Paine Field terminal was closed, Smith said.
Airports around the country are trying to make a comeback after a global travel slump decimated the airlines and travel industry. Passenger counts fell by 80% or more throughout the U.S. Smaller airports like Paine Field were hit especially hard as carriers slashed schedules, or ended service altogether, and grounded thousands of planes.
With COVID-19 resurgent in some parts of the U.S., it’s still touch and go.
Many domestic carriers are flying less than half their normal schedule. In the past week or so, some airlines have backed off plans to add more flights because of the spike in COVID-19 cases. The International Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents the world’s airlines, predicts that air travel won’t bounce back to 2019 levels until 2024.
On April 14, the Transportation Security Administration screened just 87,500 passengers and crew, a record low in recent years and a sharp decline from the normal of 2 million to 3 million screened daily.
The numbers have slowly risen since. On Tuesday, the agency screened 700,000 passengers — an improvement over daily counts in the spring but nowhere near the 2.6 million passengers it screened a year ago Tuesday.
The drop-off in passengers at the Everett terminal seemed especially steep, given its rapid ascent after opening in 2019.
On March 4, a year after opening, the passenger terminal had served a million plus travelers and logged more than 8,560 flights. Two months later, the number of flights had fallen to three a day, and passengers were a trickle.
In late May, Propeller received federal approval to shut it down for previously planned ramp repair. The project had been scheduled to take four months while service continued, but with air travel curtailed, closing altogether for 10 weeks made better sense, Smith said.
Construction crews replaced the original asphalt pavement near the gates. The surface had proved to be structurally unsound, plagued by bumps and divots. “We didn’t know that until we started operating,” said Smith.
Propeller paid for the repairs, a significant investment, Smith said.
“This is a 30-year fix,” he said of the decision to pour concrete, which is more expensive than asphalt but also more durable.
Smith is proud of the fact that Propeller’s 20-person staff remained on the payroll during the 10-week closure.
“There were no layoffs,” he said. “We’ve been spending this time bringing the terminal back to a pristine state.”
During the closure, Smith took a breather but has returned to the terminal to make sure everything goes smoothly.
“We’re paying the rent,” Smith said, adding later, “but we don’t expect to show a profit for at least two years.”
Still, he’s optimistic.
“You have to believe that people will eventually start flying again,” Smith said. “I think it’s going to take a while to come back. We’re going to ride this out.”
The same features that attracted people in the first place to the small but elegant terminal will bring them back, he said. That includes ditching the dismal journey to Sea-Tac Airport.
Edmonds resident Jim Grant, for one, will be happy to see the terminal reopen on Saturday. If only it had been a day earlier.
Grant will be driving his wife to Sea-Tac on Friday for a Denver flight, a car trip he prefers to avoid. “You never know what can happen in that traffic,” Grant said of the 60-mile round trip.
“Let’s hope we never close again,” said Smith.
Janice Podsada; firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods