Propeller Airports CEO Brett Smith, who has been awarded the John M. Fluke Sr. Award, poses on a jet bridge at Paine Field’s new passenger terminal. The award recognizes someone who has demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit and community leadership. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Propeller Airports CEO Brett Smith, who has been awarded the John M. Fluke Sr. Award, poses on a jet bridge at Paine Field’s new passenger terminal. The award recognizes someone who has demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit and community leadership. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The CEO of Propeller Airports takes a ground-level approach

Paine Field passenger-terminal developer Brett Smith is being honored for landing the airlines.

EVERETT — These days Brett Smith, the CEO of Propeller Airports, can be glimpsed handing out bottled water, carrying luggage or validating parking tickets at Paine Field’s new passenger terminal.

Travelers routinely mistake him for a skycap, security guard or parking attendant.

That’s OK by Smith, whose company invested some $40 million to develop the two-gate terminal and now manages it.

“Now I’m focused on making sure the operation is perfect, and working through the kinks,” said Smith, the tour-de-force behind Everett’s new airline service.

He has a new lilt in his step — and rightly so.

Alaska Airlines and United Airlines are offering a combined 24 daily flights from the Snohomish County-owned airport, the maximum allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration. And he made it happen.

The army of construction workers is gone. The regulatory hurdles that paused the start of airline service are behind him.

The planes are full.

Jammed baggage carousel? Smith excuses himself, leaps over the delivery belt and dislodges the offending suitcase.

“I fix things as needed,” he said, sitting back down to continue the interview.

Smith is this year’s recipient of the John M. Fluke Award, given by Economic Alliance Snohomish County to an individual who has demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit and community leadership. Established in 1970, the award is named for the founder of Fluke Corp.

The award will be presented at the alliance’s eighth annual meeting and awards celebration May 23 at the Tulalip Resort Casino.

Nominator Olivia Maisel, manager at Northwest Staffing Resources in Everett, wrote: “Brett, through Propeller Airports, has created countless opportunities for economic growth, job development, and added quality of life to the Snohomish County area.”

“The addition of a commercial air terminal to Paine Field will draw in more businesses and will also provide additional opportunities for trade through the Port of Everett,” Maisel said. “Brett’s commitment to the community, his entrepreneurial vision, and forward thinking culminated in a priceless addition to our area.”

She’s not alone in her admiration. Smith’s fans include commercial real estate agents, business owners and a single mother whose new job at the terminal took her out of the food bank line.

Commercial passenger service has given the region new cachet, said Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers.

The number of potential investors “both locally and nationally who are now giving Snohomish County a second look” is rising, Somers said.

It’s early yet — the terminal opened March 4 — but the operation has already generated about 300 jobs.

The project has also earned Propeller this year’s “Innovation Award” from the National Council of Public-Private Partnerships, a nonprofit group.

In 2015, privately owned Propeller Airports and the county signed a 30-year lease agreement, a public-private partnership. Paine Field is the first U.S. airport with a privately built and managed commercial airline passenger operation within a publicly owned airport, said Jason Washington, the director of the council.

“There are 504 airports across the U.S. that offer commercial flights,” said Washington, “and new ones rarely join that list, making the addition of Paine Field even more significant.”

In his stepped-up duties as skycap, purser and handyman, Smith is privy to the unfiltered opinions of travelers.

So far, they like what they see, he said, comparing the leather and glass interior of the terminal to a VIP lounge or grand hotel.

“People are getting off the plane and taking pictures of the terminal,” he said. “Who takes photos of an airport?”

A few naysayers have sought him out and told him, “‘If I knew how nice it was going to be, I would have never opposed it,” Smith said.

To be sure, there are a few snags, he said.

Among them: Travelers who find the lounge so comfortable they fall asleep and miss their flight, and ticket holders who forget they need to check in with the airline about an hour before their flight.

“That’s my fault,” said Smith. “I’ve been saying how it takes only a few minutes to get through TSA.”

Would he do it all over again? Yes yes, yes.

Next time, though, “I would probably build a new terminal for an already existing passenger airport.” For passenger service to begin, Paine Field needed federal approval, and that process was lengthy.

A long vacation would be nice, but for now more time with his dog, Theo, will do. (Smith’s Wheaten Terrier made the inaugural dash from one gate to the next.)

Still, Smith has those pinch-me moments when he catches sight of the gleaming steel-and-glass terminal, and can’t believe it’s really built.

How to describe that feeling? “Should I say this?” he said “I could die a happy man.”

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

About the awards

Economic Alliance Snohomish County and The Daily Herald are partners in honoring the achievements of three people who helped create a better community or advanced the region’s economic prosperity.

The Henry M. Jackson Award is named for the former U.S. senator from Everett. The award was established in 1977 and honors someone who demonstrates exemplary service to the community and is committed to the business interests of the region. This individual drives local, state and regional initiatives for business; promotes civic, social and cultural programs; and participates in programs that expand the potential and quality of life in the county.

The John M. Fluke Sr. Award is named for the founder of Fluke Corp., the industrial test-measurement company in Everett. The award is given to an individual who has demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit, and business and community leadership, coupled with significant community contribution and commitment. It was established in 1970.

The Elson S. Floyd Award is named for the former Washington State University president, who played a key role in establishing the Washington State University Everett campus. The award aims to honor a visionary leader who through partnership, tenacity and a strong commitment to community has created lasting opportunities, especially for those who have traditionally been underserved — opportunities that improve the quality of life and positively impact the trajectory of the regional economy.

The award winners will be honored at Economic Alliance Snohomish County’s annual luncheon May 23 at the Tulalip Resort Casino.

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