Planning Paine’s future

Chet McPherson loves airplanes. He served on a B-17 bomber in World War II and spent 30 years at United Airlines before retiring to Snohomish County in the 1980s.

But McPherson would not love an airline based at Paine Field.

“An airport is a very, very noisy place,” he said, as jets flying in and out of Paine Field passed over his north Edmonds home with a clearly audible rumble.

Snohomish County’s largest airport handles airliners every day – 777s and 747s built in one of the world’s largest buildings at the airport’s north end, and 737s repaired at one of the nation’s largest jet maintenance facilities at the south end.

But you can’t buy a ticket to fly on those planes. There is no airline service at the airport, which is home to aerospace giants the Boeing Co. and Goodrich Corp.

Whether Paine Field should be home to an airline has been a topic of often loud debate since the 1970s. Opponents say the added noise would destroy the quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods. Advocates cite convenience and economic development.

The debate recently received new life when the county, which owns the field, launched a study. Its results are due later this summer.

Opponents are alarmed.

“A lot of people see it as black-and-white,” said Bob Temples, who lives south of the airport. “There may be a bit of overreaction to this, but the bottom line is people are surprised that anybody in the county is even entertaining thoughts of commercial air traffic at Paine Field.”

Still, an unscientific survey of Herald readers suggests there is wide support for the idea. About 80 percent of the readers expressing an opinion in an online questionnaire said they would support commercial airline service.

Carol Lewellen, who lives near McPherson in Edmonds, is one of them. Her husband flies to California several times a month, often spending as much time negotiating traffic and airport security as he does in the air.

“If we had a more convenient airport here, people would use it,” she said.

The question is whether that support would overcome the objections.

“I’m not strongly in favor of it,” Temples said, “but I know a lot of people I talk to are strongly against it.”

An economic force

Paine Field was initially conceived as an economic stimulant. It was built in 1936 as part of a New Deal plan to create 10 “superairports” around the country, according to the airport’s official history.

Boeing replaced the Air Force as the major user of the airport in 1966 when the company came north to build its giant 747 factory.

In the 1970s, Snohomish County began a series of long-term studies on potential uses of Paine Field that resulted in 1978-79 in a series of documents commonly referred to as the mediated agreement.

The plans called for developing the airport as a general aviation facility for light aircraft. Air cargo and passenger service were to be discouraged.

In 1979, county commissioners adopted a second set of recommendations developed by a panel of government agencies, citizens and airport users. Those documents specifically allow “commuter service” at the airport.

Since then, “airport staff have generally assumed the intent of the documents to include scheduled air service by most large aircraft as a discouraged activity,” according to the Paine Field Web site.

Still, the fact that there are overlapping documents “certainly lends itself to different and potentially conflicting interpretations,” said Paul Roberts, Snohomish County’s executive director.

But the county doesn’t have the last word. When the federal government gave the airport back to the county in the 1960s, one of the conditions was that it be maintained it as an aviation facility.

“That includes commercial service,” Roberts said. “It’s very clear from a federal government point of view.”

Airline experiments

There have been airline experiments over the years.

In 1987, San Juan Airlines launched service between Paine Field and Portland, Ore., but dropped the route about a year later.

In the 1990s, Horizon Air took a hard look at reviving the Paine-to-Portland route. The airline first planned to start service in 1997, then pushed it back before canceling it.

Horizon still keeps tabs on Paine, and as recently as 2002 reviewed the Everett-to-Portland concept, said Bill Coniff, an airline spokesman.

Whether Horizon ever comes to Paine Field depends on a number of factors, he said.

“Can we serve it profitably? What is the mix of business and leisure passengers? Is the market being served by other carriers? Does the airport have the necessary facilities?” he said.

If Horizon were to come to Paine, it would likely use 37-seat Bombardier Q200 turboprops, its smallest planes, to go in and out three times a day, he said.

But getting an airline to Everett would cost money. The terminal that private pilots use is suitable only for very small aircraft, Roberts said. A new terminal would be required.

Moses Lake and Walla Walla built new terminals in the 1990s to host Horizon service to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Walla Walla’s terminal, which opened in 1998, cost $10.5 million, said the airport’s manager, Larry Adams.

The federal government paid $5 million, and the Port of Walla Walla paid the rest. For that, Walla Walla got a 35,000-square-foot building with two gates, two ticket counters and a security checkpoint.

But it’s been a struggle for Horizon in Walla Walla. The airline plans to cut its service from four flights a day to three this fall, Adams said.

Walla Walla is pursuing grant money in an attempt to partially subsidize the fourth flight, and also help Horizon market its service, Adams said.

That’s not uncommon, Coniff said. “Some communities are very motivated and provide a financial support package.”

Recruiting business

Having airline service at Paine Field would help efforts to recruit businesses, said Deborah Knutson, president of the Snohomish County Economic Development Council.

“Particularly for technology companies, a location factor for them is an airport that’s close,” she said. “They travel a lot.”

Lewellen, who with her husband owns a Lynnwood engineering firm, agreed.

“The high-tech guys, that’s one of the things they look at – how easy is it for me to get to the airport and get my people around?” she said.

But Ileen Weber, who lives off Airport Road, isn’t sure airline service would create enough jobs to make the benefits worth the drawbacks.

“I’d have to be convinced it would be that significant,” she said. “If it comes from the politicians and developers, I’m not going to be convinced.”

Quieter airplanes

Everyone acknowledges that airplanes are quieter now than in 1978.

With the Q200, “there is no noise beyond the perimeter of the airport,” said Dan Russo, a spokesman for Horizon’s parent company, Alaska Air Group.

A 2002 noise study at Paine Field found that most of the noise generated by planes never travels beyond the boundaries of the Boeing property adjacent to the airport.

A Boeing spokeswoman said the company rarely gets noise complaints, even though it regularly flies some of the world’s largest jets in and out of Paine. The complaints it does get come when it conducts engine testing on the ground.

But quiet is in the ear of the beholder.

Temples lives in a quiet, tree-lined subdivision near Picnic Point. It’s not just the noise made by individual planes, he said. On sunny weekends, there’s a steady stream of light planes flying in and out of Paine Field. That can be more annoying than one big jet, he said.

Yet, Lewellen said the 777s that fly over her nearby home are no nuisance at all. “The people across the street are louder than the airport,” she said.

For Weber, the issue isn’t noise footprints or decibel levels.

For now, “it’s at a tolerable level,” she said.

But if more planes were coming and going, “I’d move,” she said. “I wouldn’t stay here. I know how annoying it would be.”

Whatever happens, it won’t happen quickly, Roberts said.

The county wants to use the survey data, when it arrives later this summer, to start planning Paine Field’s future.

“The production of a study is a long way from building a terminal,” he said. “We need to be careful about how we take the information and use the information, and work with the community to address legitimate concerns.”

Reporter Bryan Corliss: 425-339-3454 or

Field facts

Main runway length: 9,010 feet (Sea-Tac Airport is 11,900 feet; Boeing Field is 10,001 feet).

Flights: 213,291 in 2000.

Average flight landings a day in peak months: 688.

Major structures: Goodrich Corp. has the nation’s third-largest jet maintenance base on airport property. The Boeing Co.’s Everett factory is on land adjacent to the airport.

Developments: The Federal Aviation Administration opened a new $8 million control tower in 2003. Officials plan to break ground this fall on the $21.7 million National Flight Interpretive Center, a 63,650-square-foot aircraft museum that will include the Boeing Tour Center and an adjacent 100-room hotel.

Source: Paine Field Airport master plan and Herald staff

Field facts

Main runway length: 9,010 feet (Sea-Tac is 11,900; Boeing Field 10,001).

Flights: 213,291 in 2000.

Average flight, landings a day in peak months: 688.

Major structures: Goodrich Corp. has the nation’s third-largest jet maintenance base on airport property. The Boeing Co.’s Everett factory is on land adjacent to the airport.

Developments: The Federal Aviation Administration opened a new $8 million control tower in 2003. Officials plan to break ground this fall on a new $21.7 million National Flight Interpretive Center, a 63,650-square-foot aircraft museum that will include a new Boeing Tour Center and an adjacent 100-room hotel.

Source: Paine Field Airport Master Plan and Herald staff

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