Sweeping changes on the horizon at Paine Field

EVERETT — When Boeing moved to Paine Field nearly 50 years ago, it was one of the few houses on the block.

Since then, the airport and surrounding land have become a hub of manufacturing and a major economic engine for the region. Most of the trees and open fields are gone, replaced by high-tech production, repair and research facilities.

Boeing has been the center of the core, but potential changes on the horizon could bring new economic diversity to Paine Field.

Public and higher education officials are trying to develop a research lab to lead the way into manufacturing’s future — composite materials — on vacant land on the west side of the county airport. Private investors want to build a small terminal at Paine Field for commercial passenger flights. That’s a prospect even some die-hard opponents now say they’d be hard-pressed to stop.

Meanwhile, Boeing is expanding its Everett facility for production of the new 777X airliner, which all but guarantees the company’s presence here for decades to come.

With some of the biggest changes in Paine Field’s history now afoot, the county is looking for a successor to longtime airport director Dave Waggoner, who plans to retire in September. County officials say whoever follows him needs to know general aviation, the aerospace industry, economic development, real estate and public relations. A tall order by any measure.

Warplanes to jumbo jets

Paine Field arose out of the Great Depression, a product of the Works Progress Administration. Federal officials’ plans for a “super airport” were derailed by World War II. Military aviation took over the site.

See a photo gallery of the history of Paine Field.

After the war, the county took over airport operations. The plan was to make money from regularly scheduled commercial air service, general aviation and business tenants. Alaska Airlines built a maintenance hangar, which is now used by the Flying Heritage Collection.

As the Cold War heated up, the military returned, displacing many civilian tenants. In 1951, the U.S. Air Force turned Paine Field into an alert-status base with first-generation jet fighters always ready to intercept enemy aircraft.

“They would pull out of the ready hangar at full throttle. Those guys would be doing 50 or 60 knots on the taxiway,” said Waggoner, himself a former U.S. Navy aviator.

Non-military uses were still permitted, but warplanes dominated the airfield until the mid-1960s, when the Air Force began winding down its presence.

As the military departed, a new, jumbo-size civilian tenant arrived: the Boeing Co. and its 747. Factory construction started on Jan. 3, 1967, and the plant opened later that year. The first 747 rolled out in late 1968.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Boeing expanded its Everett operation to accommodate new airplane production lines. Tramco, now Aviation Technical Services Inc. (ATS), arrived and became one of the country’s leading aviation maintenance and repair operations. The airport also hosted small businesses and some Boeing suppliers.

Aerospace-related development picked up in the 1990s, starting with Boeing’s expansion for the twin-aisle 777. These days, Paine Field is critical to the state’s economy, said Alex Pietsch, the governor’s top adviser on aerospace.

“Its main importance is that it’s the launching pad for virtually all the Boeing widebody programs. It’s essential to the success of the aerospace industry in Washington, given the role Boeing plays,” he said.

Paine Field helps put about $40 billion into the economy each year, according to county estimates.

Much of that comes from Boeing’s Everett plant, where it assembles all 747s, 767s and 777s, as well as most 787 Dreamliners. New airplanes are delivered to customers at the Everett Delivery Center near the airport’s north end.

Boeing employs about 42,000 people in Everett. That accounts for nearly one-fifth of the county’s private-sector jobs.

Aerospace manufacturing directly employs more than 50,000 in Snohomish County, according to a 2013 study commissioned by the Washington Aerospace Partnership.

Even more jobs are indirectly tied to the aerospace sector.

“With such a large portion of our workforce tied up in one industry, we feel the boom and bust in a very tangible way,” said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, a regional labor economist with the state’s Employment Security Department.

Boeing, ATS and Honeywell use Paine Field for test flights, but most aerospace-related companies like being in the area because it means being close to suppliers and customers.

Major Boeing suppliers on airport property include Korry, BE Aerospace, UTC Aerospace Systems and Honeywell. More have set up shop nearby, and elsewhere in the county.

The UTC Aerospace Systems facility in Everett “is designed to meet Boeing’s need for just-in-time delivery,” said Dave Castagnola, president of the company’s landing systems operation. “We provide fully dressed gear — ready for attachment to Boeing aircraft — that can be installed within hours of delivery.”

Airport staff and economic development boosters are quick to help companies considering expanding or relocating in the area.

That was Korry’s experience in 2008, when company executives decided to move operations from Seattle. Korry, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bellevue-based Esterline Corp., makes cockpit control systems, employing approximately 650 workers at Paine Field.

“Once we picked up the phone, things moved very quickly,” said David Rhoden, the company’s vice president of operations.

Former military housing was torn down to clear room for a 216,000-square-foot plant. Korry’s developer owns the building. The county still owns the land.

“We found them space,” Waggoner said, summing up the partnership.

“Boeing loves that we’re right here, and we spend plenty of time on the flightline,” Rhoden said.

Aerospace is a global industry with suppliers and customers spread across time zones, but proximity still matters.

“It’s a lot easier for me to walk across the street and talk with Qualitel,” which supplies Korry with circuit boards, Rhoden said.

Only California rivals the skill and experience of the region’s aerospace workforce.

Of course, “the Northwest is not the cheapest labor spot,” he said.

The average salary at aerospace manufacturing companies in Snohomish County is nearly $95,000 — about 80 percent more than the countywide average of $53,000.

Increasing automation likely means fewer people will be needed to assemble airplanes and make components.

But Boeing and other companies will continue hiring because many current workers are approaching retirement, said Vance-Sherman, the labor economist.

‘Boeing, going, gone’

Many people here were unnerved last year by Boeing’s highly publicized nationwide search for a 777X assembly site. It fueled anxiety that the Chicago-based company wants to flee Washington, a fear captured by the phrase “Boeing, going, gone.”

Worried about losing the 777X, state lawmakers extended huge tax breaks for the airplane maker and many urged members of the Machinists union to approve a concession-laden contract.

Now, local business and political leaders want the advanced manufacturing sector here to reduce its dependence on Boeing. Becoming a center known not just for airplanes but for skill in making things from composite materials, such as carbon fiber, is the best option, many say.

A collection of Washington-based industry groups and West Coast universities have teamed up to compete for $70 million in federal tax dollars. The money would set up a composite-material manufacturing research lab in Snohomish County with satellite locations in Port Angeles and Los Angeles.

The lab would focus on using composite materials for the clean-energy sector — storage tanks strong enough to contain compressed fuels, lightweight car frames that improve gas mileage. It would be part of a federal initiative to create regional hubs for experimenting with new ways of manufacturing.

County officials already have offered to share the costs of building the research center on a portion of 80 undeveloped acres at Paine Field zoned for industry. The area is just south of the Future of Flight Aviation Center &Boeing Tour.

Airport staff did much of the site development legwork for the land as a potential location for 777X wing fabrication.

The state’s application is one of a handful still in the running, said Mary Kaye Brederson, who helped assemble the proposal.

Brederson is also executive director of the Paine Field-based Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Materials Manufacturing.

Having the composites center in Snohomish County would help ensure a steady stream of skilled workers, she said.

“Imagine if there was a research lab with state-of-the-art equipment and our students could work side-by-side with industry and university researchers,” Brederson said. “It’s that hands-on experience and that transfer of information that is so valuable.”

Undeveloped industrial land, such as Paine Field’s west side, is a commodity in short supply, said Brent Jackson with Jones Lang Lasalle, a Seattle-based commercial real estate company.

The available land in the area will soon be built out, he said. “It’s not much. It’s probably two or three years of supply for typical demand in that market.”

Part of Paine Field’s 80 acres almost became a grocery store early last decade when many county leaders, including Waggoner, wanted to see a Safeway developed there.

The store never materialized. The county’s view — as well as Waggoner’s — also changed. Development at Paine Field should be aerospace-related and make sense in the long term, Waggoner said.

“We don’t put a high priority on developing quickly. I would rather wait for something that’s going to be here for 50 years,” he said.

Passenger flights

The arrival of commercial passenger flights at Paine Field appears more likely than ever after years of study and push-back from neighbors worried about added noise.

Commercial flights could help draw new companies and retain those already here, said John Monroe, the chief operating officer of Economic Alliance Snohomish County and a former Boeing executive.

Companies want to be connected to major transportation networks, he said.

“What does that mean? Rail, port, airfield, highways. You’ve got the full-meal deal here.”

New York-based Propeller Investments met last month with county officials to talk about leasing space for a passenger terminal and operating four or five regional flights daily out of Paine Field.

The talks are just that — talks, both sides say.

But even ardent opponents concede that passenger flights at Paine Field seem inevitable.

“If the FAA wants it and an airline wants it, I think we’d be hard-pressed to stop it,” said County Councilman Brian Sullivan, who is dead-set against commercial passenger flights.

Growth means traffic

Any growth at the airport or at Boeing will increase demands on parking and transit.

Elected leaders say it’s imperative to get express bus service and light rail to serve the area.

Boeing hasn’t maxed out its permitted 21,000 parking spaces. It encourages employees to use van pools, car pools and public transit. The site is served by three bus routes, a company spokesman said.

Community Transit is considering adding an express route from the airport to Bothell’s Canyon Park area, said Martin Munguia, a spokesman for the agency.

As a long-term solution, Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson and other leaders want Sound Transit’s light rail network to reach the airport, rather than take a more direct route to Everett along the I-5 corridor. Even if that materializes, it might not arrive until 2030 and only after voters approve taxes to pay for it.

“Long term, we desperately need light rail, and we need it to that job center and we need that sooner rather than later,” Stephanson said.

The next leader

The man now at the intersection of these myriad issues is Waggoner, who has run Paine Field for nearly a quarter century and plans to retire next month. He arrived with the 777 and is leaving with its successor, the 777X.

The county has 59 applicants for the job. The list of desired qualifications for the next director at Paine Field emphasizes deep technical knowledge, flexibility and the ability to balance competing interests.

Most of all, “we want a candidate who understands the huge role that airport plays in economic development,” said Lenda Crawford, an executive director with the county executive’s office.

Paine Field snapshot

2014 budget: $40.8 million

Takeoffs and landings in 2013: 111,482

Aircraft based there: about 650

Major tenants: Boeing, Aviation Technical Services, Korry, BE Aerospace, UTC Aerospace Systems, Snohomish County services, workforce training programs, general aviation hangars and services, museums

Museums: 3 (the Flying Heritage Collection, the Historic Flight Foundation and the Future of Flight &Boeing Tour)

Groundbreaking: 1936

Namesake: Topliff Olin Paine, a World War I U.S. Army Air Corps pilot from Everett

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