EVERETT — Snohomish County has released drawings of a larger passenger terminal at Paine Field, providing a window into how a long-term development playbook for the Everett airport is taking shape.
The illustrations, posted online last week, show two potential layouts for a westward expansion of the existing terminal, including more gates and hundreds more passenger parking spots.
The rough designs are a sampling of the possibilities under consideration as county officials weigh how much space to set aside in the case that the terminal’s private operator pursues an expansion in the next few decades. The layouts were devised as part of a formulaic “master plan” process, according to the county, to evaluate how much space might be needed for various types of development at the airport between now and 2040.
For two years now, county and airport leaders have been studying how to divvy Paine Field’s limited real estate among its many users, from general aviation pilots to aerospace manufacturers.
“The intention of these drawings is merely to show what the potential land areas would be that the county would consider reserving for future development,” said Michael Tubridy, vice president of master planning for Landrum & Brown, the aviation consultant that the county has commissioned for the master plan. “We have to balance the entire system of pieces at the airport and make sure they all fit. It’s kind of like a big jigsaw puzzle.”
The new drawings, along with other master plan documents, add to a growing body of evidence that the Everett passenger terminal will need to be expanded in the next 20 years as the demand for airline travel in the Puget Sound region surpasses the capabilities of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Air-travel demand to soar
Despite the economic downturn ushered by the pandemic, analysts have forecast that the terminal will see 4.3 million passengers a year by 2040.
Serving that many people would require nearly five times the square footage of the current terminal building, according to a draft analysis, prepared by the aviation consultant for the county as part of the master plan process. The document, provided to The Daily Herald by the county upon request, was prepared as a chapter of the master plan known as the “facility requirements.”
Landrum & Brown estimates the existing 44,000-square-foot terminal can handle about 1.5 million annual passengers. When demand rises above that threshold, which is expected to happen in the early 2030s, the terminal will need “incremental expansion,” says the draft report. Serving 4.3 million passengers a year would require four more “contact” gates, connected to the terminal building, plus eight additional “remote parking positions” for aircraft.
The company that constructed and runs the Paine Field terminal, privately held Propeller Airports, isn’t seeking expansion any time soon, CEO Brett Smith said. His focus remains on restoring the terminal to its pre-pandemic bustle. In 2019, the terminal’s first year of operation, it offered 24 daily departures.
“We have no immediate plans to expand the facility and any expansion would be driven by passenger demand and subject to county approval,” Smith said in an email.
“While Propeller is clearly interested in the master plan, we are only one of many stakeholders in the process,” he wrote, “and to date we’ve had a relatively limited role of providing our input to the county and its planners.”
A third airport diagram, also published online by the county this week, offers some insight into how the airport property might be earmarked for varying future uses through the master plan process.
The consultant reports there will be need for another 400,000 square feet of general aviation space by 2040, including hangar space and tie-down spots. There’s already a waitlist for the county’s general aviation hangars.
Select areas are also being considered for corporate hangars, air cargo facilities and even “urban air mobility,” an emerging category of automated air travel technology designed to transport passengers within cities.
County leaders and airport staff are now refining the options to choose a “preferred alternative,” or development scenario, with the forethought and flexibility to meet future aviation demand.
Public comment sought
On Wednesday, the county announced the start of a month-long public comment period, offering residents a chance to give feedback on the master plan process. The entire document won’t be final until it’s approved by the County Council and, then, the Federal Aviation Administration. That’s expected to happen next year, said airport spokesperson Kristin Banfield.
Even once it’s final, county officials say, it is a guiding document, not a binding one.
At the state level, Paine Field is facing pressure to expand the terminal.
The Everett airport is on a state commission’s short list of airports that could grow to absorb unmet demand after Sea-Tac reaches its limit.
The Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission refined that list at the beginning of the year, clarifying that Paine Field is the only one of the six selected airports that has the “potential for additional commercial passenger service,” according to the commission’s February report to the Legislature.
The five other airports may still help meet demand for general aviation and air cargo, but they were ruled out for passenger airline service. Some are too far from population centers. Others lack infrastructure needed for passenger flights, the commission determined.
Arlington Municipal Airport, on the commission’s initial short list, has a runway that’s too short for large commercial aircraft and cannot expand because of surrounding development, according to a white paper presented to the commission last year.
But one of Paine Field’s two runways is 9,000 feet — long enough for “most passenger service and air cargo aircraft, including international flights,” says the report. With Boeing’s big factory at the north end, Paine has long accommodated the world’s biggest airplanes.
Brand-new regional airport
The commission, formed in 2019 to ensure another major airport is up and running by 2040, includes transportation officials and government leaders from across the state. Snohomish County Airport Director Arif Ghouse is a voting member.
Commissioners were initially asked to identify a single location for a new major commercial aviation facility by the beginning of this year. But in 2021, the Legislature pushed the final deadline to 2023 in response to delays caused by the pandemic.
The commission remarked in its most recent report that “2050 is perhaps a more realistic target” for the opening of a new airport.
A consultant is studying potential sites for a new airport as part of a separate, FAA-scheduled study of the state’s aviation system, the commission said in the report.
Before the pandemic, demand for air travel in the Puget Sound region was expected to exceed available capacity at Sea-Tac and Paine Field in 2027.
But the global crisis added at least a few years to that timeline, according to the Paine Field forecast, which has been approved by the FAA. The forecast assumes that traffic at the Everett terminal will recover by 2025 and that Sea-Tac “will begin to experience unmet passenger demand in 2037.”
Any future expansion of the Paine Field terminal will also depend on whether airlines are willing to increase service at the terminal.
United Airlines ended its flights there in October, leaving Alaska Airlines and sibling regional carrier Horizon Airas the sole airline tenants serving Paine Field.
Alaska recently announced plans to restore its service at Paine Field to pre-pandemic levels, with 18 daily round-trip flights starting this month.
“Paine Field is an important airport and market for Alaska Airlines that we want to grow over time,” Alaska Airlines spokesman Ray Lane said in an email. “The master plan work is critical to that effort. We believe PAE,” which is Paine’s official three-letter designation, “is part of a long-term solution to address aviation capacity in the Puget Sound region.”
Room to expand terminal
Propeller leases the land underlying the terminal from the county under a 30-year agreement. The deal provides options for two 10-year extensions, so long as the company making is monthly payments and meeting other obligations under the agreement. It also guarantees Propeller the right to design, construct and operate any future terminal facilities.
The new terminal layout drawings, published online this week, show examples of how the boundaries of the company’s lease might expand in the future to cover more land, some of it paved but otherwise undeveloped, if the terminal were to grow.
Between forecast growth in commercial air service and general aviation flights, Paine Field will need other upgrades, including a larger airport entrance, as well as more facility space for county law enforcement and airport maintenance and administration, according to the draft “facility requirements” analysis.
The next phase of the master plan process will consider how to pay for infrastructure improvements that are part of the development plan. Some projects might be eligible for FAA funding.
More on the Airport Master Plan