EVERETT — Paine Field could soon host double the number of passenger flights envisioned a few short years ago, if everything goes as planned.
The Federal Aviation Administration studied about a dozen daily flights in 2012, when the agency determined regular passenger service would have no significant environmental impact on Paine Field and the surrounding area.
After a round of announcements last month, Alaska, United and Southwest airlines now expect to offer a combined 24 daily departures from Everett, starting this fall.
It’s up to the FAA to decide whether that’s a significant change.
Representatives from the company building a passenger terminal at the airport contend the number of announced flights poses no regulatory issue. Total passengers, car trips and other impacts, they said, should remain about the same as what the FAA studied five years ago in long-since abandoned proposals from other carriers.
“Obviously the FAA has to make that assessment, but we’re confident that it will not show any significant difference,” said Peter Kirsch, an attorney for Propeller Airports. “The numbers are going to be comparable, maybe even less, than what was analyzed then.”
The project, in Kirsch’s opinion, adds a mere two commercial gates at an already busy industrial airport.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, by comparison, has 80 gates.
Neighbors who have long sought to block commercial service have seized on the change in flight volume to demand further environmental studies. A meeting of the Save Our Communities advocacy group drew a robust audience at Mukilteo City Hall on Sunday.
“They never studied enough scope,” said Mike Moore, Save Our Communities’ president. “They never studied enough activity.”
Moore pointed out that the 11.5 average daily flights the FAA studied in 2012 was a hypothetical number in the fifth year of service, after lower initial levels.
Save Our Communities and the city of Mukilteo have been involved in a series of unsuccessful court battles to stop the terminal. Last summer, the state Supreme Court declined to hear their case opposing a commercial air terminal, bringing its suit against Propeller and airport owner Snohomish County to an end.
A statement that Save Our Communities put out after its recent meeting warned that the area could see a “classic death by 1,000 cuts” if commercial passenger service continues to grow.
“Just a couple flights per day, just 11 flights, just 5 more flights, just 8 more flights, just …” the alert reads, letting the reader imagine what would follow.
Propeller CEO Brett Smith said those fears are exaggerated. The terminal is maxed out and limited to two gates for the foreseeable future.
“I would urge them to consider looking at the positive benefits as well,” Smith said, referring to the economic effect and convenience for air travelers of avoiding the drive to Sea-Tac.
There has been a shift in tone from previous disagreements between vocal Paine Field neighbors and advocates for commercial passenger flights.
Alaska and United Airlines plan to use only Embraer 175 aircraft for their 13 and six daily departures, respectively. The relatively small, quieter 76-seat aircraft are welcome news to Save Our Communities. The group hopes to talk to the airlines and to Propeller to discuss more ways to lessen noise.
For its five daily departures, Southwest would use Boeing 737s, which can seat at least twice as many people as the E175.
Propeller expects up to 1,700 passenger boardings per day at the terminal. Flights planned by the three carriers could accommodate nearly 2,350 passengers per day if all the planes were full and if Southwest used its highest-capacity 737s.
The earlier studies were based on flights using larger, louder jets than now under consideration, people on both sides of the controversy agree.
Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson remains anxious about the effects, but is encouraged by recent conversations. Gregerson said she met with representatives from Alaska Airlines in the fall and again in January.
“We appreciate the open dialogue we have had with Alaska about voluntary ways to mitigate the new service, including green initiatives, flight paths and hours of operation,” Gregerson said. “The rapidly growing proposal does feel like confirmation of the fears our community had about growth in service. I appreciate that Propeller has no further expansion plans, though.”
The FAA is preparing to start a supplemental environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act. That’s one of three key steps necessary to authorize new service, said Allen Kenitzer, an agency spokesman. So far, the FAA has received formal service proposals from Alaska and United, but not from Southwest.
Snohomish County planners intend to review the federal report, when it’s ready, to decide whether more land-use studies are needed at the local level, county spokesman Kent Patton said.
Terminal construction is scheduled to finish this summer.