EVERETT — Paine Field took a major step this week toward becoming a “second hub” for Puget Sound flights, as an alternative to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
A state commission zeroed in on the Snohomish County airport as the best bet for expanding passenger airline service at an existing airport to meet future demand for flights in the Seattle area.
Ina report to lawmakers released on Wednesday, the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission recommended “priority and funding” to grow the Everett terminal “through gradual increases in capacity according to its airport master plan,” a 20-year development blueprint that’s in the works.
Still, the state needs another airport — probably one with two runways, the commission concluded.
It narrowed a list of potential “greenfield” sites to study, from 10 options across the state to three near Joint Base Lewis-McChord. One of those sites is in Thurston County, east of Olympia, overlapping the western boundaries of the base. Two others are in Pierce County: one option about 2 miles south of the base, east of Roy and McKenna, and another roughly 5 miles east of the base, south of Puyallup and Graham.
“A new airport of this size and scale can be expected to take 20 years to deliver,” says the report.
But with regional demand for air travel expected to outstrip current capacity in the next decade, it’s getting harder for state and local officials to envision a future without expanding Everett’s terminal.
“We believe that the commission came to the right conclusion,” said Brett Smith, CEO of Propeller Airports, the terminal’s private operator. “Paine Field is well positioned to accommodate increased demand in a way that’s compatible with the local community.”
The risk of unmet demand
The stakes of not meeting projected demand are high, according to a presentation the Washington State Department of Transportation made to commissioners at their meeting Sept. 23.
If the state takes no action to expand commercial air capacity in the region, Sea-Tac and Paine Field are expected to reach their limit in 2032 or 2033, said WSDOT Senior Aviation Planner Rob Hodgman.
When airports can’t handle enough passengers, fares might increase as a result, a consultant told the commission. In addition to crowded facilities, passengers are also more likely to have to wait — at the gate, on the tarmac or even circling in the air — as jets wait their turn to take off or land.
Unmet demand means losses for airports in jobs and revenue. On a larger scale, studies of other major U.S. airports have shown a possibility of billions of dollars in economic losses in gross regional product and personal income.
“We have a few years before we get to the point that the region is starting to experience some of those adverse impacts from being over capacity,” Hodgman told the commission.
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.
However, Ghouse abstained from the commission’s most recent vote, in September, to adopt the recommendations. He cited the airport’s ongoing master plan update.
“We haven’t completed our public outreach,” he said. “We have a lot more of that left to do, and then obviously it has to be adopted by our elected officials.”
The City of Everett is pushing for the terminal to grow, it said in a January letter to the county.
“Paine Field is a logical second hub airport for the central Puget Sound region’s passenger service based on geographical balance, available airport land and facilities, flight paths, and connections to the regional ground transportation system,” says the letter, signed by Mayor Cassie Franklin. “More importantly, development of robust commercial air service in the SW Everett area is an extremely valuable economic development tool that is already attracting interest and investment.”
Room to grow
Despite the economic downturn ushered by the pandemic, analysts have forecast that the terminal will see 4.3 million passengers per 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, an aviation consulting firm commissioned by the county, estimates the existing two-gate 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 more “remote parking positions” for aircraft.
In June, the county released rough illustrations of how an expansion might look, based on formulaic calculations by the consultant. But ultimately, the master plan website says, “the exact configuration will be worked out when and if the airport operator wants to expand.”
“Accommodating commercial demand is an important part of this plan, and we’ve identified possible ways in which Propeller could increase its footprint,” says the website.
Propeller built the facility and runs it under a long-term land lease with the county. It welcomed a million passengers in its first year, before the pandemic hit.
County residents have mixed views on expanding the terminal, according to written comments solicited as part of the master plan process.
Some fretted about noise, air pollution and traffic.
Lynnwood Economic Development Manager Ben Wolters asked that the master plan include “noise and height compatibility plans to minimize adverse impacts from air traffic flight patterns and runway approaches,” citing new urban development surrounding the Lynnwood Link light rail station.
Mukilteo City Administrator Steve Powers called on county leaders to balance passenger needs with Paine Field’s “vital” role in the aerospace industry.
Now, the committees leading the master plan process are working on choosing a “preferred alternative” and revising Paine Field’s airport layout plan accordingly.
County officials will share more information with the public during another comment period that’s expected to start early next year, airport spokeswoman Kristin Banfield said.
The plan will then go to the County Council for a vote and the Federal Aviation Administration for approval. That will probably happen in the second or third quarter of 2023, Banfield said.
A new airport
The state commission has worked separately, but simultaneously, to make a plan for the future that “recognizes” the county’s forecast of 4.3 million passengers per year at Paine Field by 2040, Hodgman said in an email.
The commission’s analysis “has not projected capacity beyond this master plan objective,” Hodgman said in a statement. “Rather, the greenfield analysis intends to support roughly 20 MAP (million annual passengers). At this time, it is uncertain how much additional capacity Paine Field could accommodate.”
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 had already decided that Paine Field was a good candidate for expansion and that a new commercial service airport would also likely need to be built.
Of the eliminated greenfield sites considered, two were in Snohomish County. The evaluation criteria accounted for environmental factors, such as natural resources and terrain, as well as land use restrictions and property acquisition.
In a letter to the commission, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers discouraged further consideration of the local greenfield sites, underscoring the existing terminal.
“Commercial air service at PAE has been extremely popular and demand for more flights is expected to increase for the foreseeable future,” Somers wrote in the letter dated Sept. 2.
The commission’s consideration of greenfield sites in other counties has drawn the ire of neighboring residents. Those who spoke during the September meeting said they were blindsided when the locations were unveiled.
In Thurston County, a grassroots campaign is organizing to fight a new airport.
This week, Pierce County leaders sent a joint letter to the commission objecting to the two prospective sites there, citing a lack of supporting infrastructure and “serious environmental challenges.”
The next steps are site-specific technical analyses of air cargo needs, environmental factors, infrastructure, transportation and access at each of the three chosen sites, according to state transportation officials.
“There is a lot of work yet to be done,” said WSDOT Aviation Director David Fleckenstein, who chairs the commission.
“As we look at these three greenfield sites,” he added, “we will narrow down that community engagement to those communities as well.”