With the Olympic Mountains in the background, Alaska Airlines Flight 2878 departs for Portland on Monday, the opening day of the Paine Field passenger terminal. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

With the Olympic Mountains in the background, Alaska Airlines Flight 2878 departs for Portland on Monday, the opening day of the Paine Field passenger terminal. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

And we’re off! First passenger flight leaves Everett

Passengers give rave reviews as they board inaugural flights at Paine Field.

EVERETT — Qiu Zhongwu was thrilled to check out the new terminal in Everett.

So thrilled, that the New Yorker braved a snowstorm back East on Sunday to catch a flight to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The 34-year-old arrived in the early a.m., woke up a few hours later and drove a rental car to Paine Field. He planned to fly to Las Vegas and return the same day.

“I parked the car here,” he said. “I have to come back.”

For Qiu, airplanes are his life’s work, not just a passing interest. He’s a senior technician who repairs planes for Republic Airways. Like many other well-traveled enthusiasts Monday, he thought the Paine terminal stood out. “This is the best one. Trust me,” Qiu said. “I travel very often. I’ve never seen one so clean. It’s like a VIP lounge.”

The new commercial passenger terminal at Paine Field opened to great fanfare Monday morning. The first plane took off to Portland around 10 a.m. It was filled with dignitaries.

The first opportunity for fare-paying passengers came at 10:30 a.m., on a trip to Las Vegas.

Alaska Airlines and United Airlines are offering a combined 24 daily departures from Everett. Alaska is phasing in service and United is poised to start March 31.

Andrew Harrison, Alaska Airlines chief commercial officer, called it “history in the making.”

The new service is expected to save time and money for more than 1 million travelers living in the region.

The airport is owned by Snohomish County. Propeller Airports invested more than $40 million to build the terminal, which it will operate.

Among the key selling points is the convenience of skipping the traffic to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It’s expected to boost Snohomish County’s economy by bringing business travelers, investors and tourists directly to Everett. Plush surroundings are intended to make air travel more inviting for all.

The smoky aroma of freshly brewed coffee filled the main waiting area.

Between flights, travelers quietly conferred in front of the two natural gas fireplaces. There was no clamor or din to outshout.

Outbound passengers, leaning back on the couches and leather chairs, savored the moment.

Gary and Lorrie Zybura of Everett had gotten up at their normal hour — 7 a.m. — and paid $11 to get to the airport. The same trip to Sea-Tac airport would have had them out the door at 4 a.m. and cost $65 each, one way, for the shuttle, Lorrie Zybura said. “We’ve been waiting for this forever,” she said.

During the morning’s ceremonies, regular folks and plane enthusiasts joined elected leaders and other special guests in observing the historic opening.

Retired Everett mayor Ray Stephanson, a long-time advocate of passenger service at Paine Field, cut the ceremonial ribbon.

Current Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin and Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers were on the first flight, on an Embraer 175 twin jet that went to Portland and back. They returned around 1 p.m.

Franklin predicted the terminal and its picturesque views will draw the attention of visitors.

“We are so pleased to be able to showcase the city,” she said.

Travelers are going to see the location and the Olympic Mountains and wonder, “What is this beautiful place?” she said.

Cheramie Gaspar, of Lake Stevens, and her son, Ted Gaspar, of Everett, were headed to Las Vegas.

“I had vacation time and it happened to line up with when they had flights going out,” said Ted Gaspar, a 23-year-old waiter. “It was perfect timing.”

For Brett Smith, CEO of Propeller Airports, the day’s events were the culmination of years of work, oversight and, at times, delays.

“This was a dream come true,” Smith said.

He presided over the unveiling of a bronze sculpture of Lt. Topliff Paine, an Army Air Corps pilot, at the entrance of the terminal. He christened the building with a bottle of champagne “for Snohomish County and its people.”

Two of Paine’s relatives, Nicholas Moe and Tom Paine, both in their 70s, thanked Smith for making the passenger terminal a reality.

“It’s wonderful having an airport named after the family,” Moe said.

The airport was built in 1936 and named after Paine in 1941. “But there was always something missing — commercial flights,” Moe said.

Perhaps nobody in the crowd had been awaiting commercial flights longer than Hank Robinett. The former airport commissioner and real estate developer had been fighting more than 30 years to bring regular passenger service to Paine Field.

Robinett, 88, was on the 10 a.m. Portland flight.

“I felt we needed it from the standpoint of jobs, from the standpoint of transportation access,” he said.

Not everyone saw it that way. Decades passed as Robinett and his allies sparred with airport neighbors and some elected leaders, particularly from Mukilteo, over what passenger flights would mean for the area — economic opportunity or noise and pollution.

“It’s going to be a wonderful thing for our job base and diversification,” he said. “We don’t want to be Sea-Tac. We just want a nice regional airport that serves our area.”

Two aviation aficionados likened the terminal lobby to that of a fancy hotel — in what’s becoming a common comparison. They were Seth Miller, 41, of Dover, New Hampshire, and Ed Pizzarello, 44, of Leesburg, Virginia.

“It’s dramatically different in terms of the passenger experience,” Pizzarello said.

One of the biggest variations? That with just two gates serving smaller jets, it’s unlikely to get too crowded.

“You park across the street and you walk in,” Miller said. “You’ll be in three minutes later, compared to Sea-Tac, where you’ll be fighting a parking shuttle.”

Airport director Arif Ghouse said he never doubted the terminal would get going.

“Something as complicated as this takes time. We had no control over federal regulations,” Ghouse said, referring to the added scrutiny required last year by the Federal Aviation Administration.

County Executive Dave Somers was quick to point out the economic benefits.

“It puts us on the radar,” Somers said. “We’re (going) to see more growth with business and Boeing investments. This really provides access to travel anywhere.”

Later, at a morning news conference, Somers said he chafes a bit at those who are describing the new terminal as Seattle’s second airport. “I always refer to Seattle as the gateway to Snohomish County,” he said.

Reporters Ben Watanabe, Rikki King and Chuck Taylor contributed to this story.

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

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