Would passenger flights succeed at Paine Field? Only one way to know

EVERETT — Getting between Everett and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport can be an hours-long slog. But convenience alone may not be enough to support passenger flights in and out of Snohomish County’s Paine Field.

The success or failure of a secondary airport depends on a multitude of variables that unfold and interact in complex, often subtle ways, experts say. The outcome can really only be known by building one.

A private developer, Propeller Airports, wants a shot to bring passenger service to the county-owned airport, the company’s CEO, Brett Smith said.

“We view this as a regional alternative” to Sea-Tac, offering five regional flights a day, he said.

The New York-based company and county staff have negotiated a proposed lease agreement to build a two-gate terminal that would be operated by Propeller. Snohomish County Council is scheduled to vote Monday on the proposal, which would give the company three years to design the terminal and clear environmental review.

Propeller hasn’t yet formally approached any airlines about flying from Paine Field. It’s possible that nothing could come of it before the clock runs out, Smith said.

Market potential doesn’t always translate into profits, said William Rankin, an aviation consultant who spent nearly 30 years running commercial airports in the U.S.

“There are a lot of failed opportunities,” he said. “There’s no golden formula to tell you if it will work or not. You won’t actually know until you’re operating.”

To determine an airport’s potential, analysts and developers look at its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, he said.

Paine Field’s strengths include the area’s population and income, and its convenience over Sea-Tac.

As the state’s third most-populated county, with about 750,000 residents, Snohomish County is large enough to support a secondary airport with regional flights. It’s market could stretch from Seattle’s north end to Mount Vernon, according to a 2004 analysis of Paine Field’s passenger market commissioned by the county.

But that might not be enough to offset Sea-Tac’s advantages, such as possibly lower fares, the number of direct flights and other variables, Rankin said.

Size isn’t the only factor. Atlanta and Munich, for example, each have one — very busy — airport, noted Richard de Neufville, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The attractiveness of an airport is always defined in comparison to its competition,” he writes in a study of multi-airport systems. “Passengers and airlines will not use a second airport when they can get better service elsewhere.”

Passengers consider travel cost, accessibility, how long they have to spend waiting for flights, and frequency of departures.

Located 32 miles to the south, Sea-Tac has been the area’s major airport since the late 1940s. Last year, more than 14,000,000 passengers moved through the airport, where flyers can catch flights to hundreds of destinations.

Getting to Sea-Tac from Snohomish County is also an ordeal that people such as Pat Jones, general manager of Triumph Composite Group in Spokane, know well. The aerospace company is a key supplier to Boeing. He and colleagues fly across the state about 50 times a year, he estimates.

About two-thirds of those trips are to Everett.

“If we’re going on a day trip, half the day is spent getting from the airport to Everett,” he said.

The flight itself takes about an hour, but the drive to or from Snohomish County adds 90 minutes to three hours, he said.

Others, such as Mukilteo-based ElectroImpact’s owner, Peter Zieve, have an easier go of it. His employees take several hundred trips to cities in the U.S. and around the world, he said.

Flying out of Paine Field “would be nice, but I don’t think it would be huge,” he said. When he flies, it rarely takes more than an hour to get to Sea-Tac, he said. “I have it down.”

Convenience matters more to business travelers, while cost is a bigger factor for discretionary travel, such as vacation, Rankin said.

Price has been a key selling point for Bellingham International Airport, which is located about an hour to the north, near the Canadian border.

The airport offers cheap fares, especially compared to the cost of flying in and out of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Discretionary travel is more volatile.

Bellingham saw traffic drop nearly 10 percent in 2014 compared to the previous year, in part due to a weaker Canadian dollar, according to the Bellingham Herald.

There’s already a lot of activity at Paine Field. Boeing assembles its widebody jetliners nearby, and test flies them at the airport.

The West Coast’s largest maintenance, repair and overhaul aerospace company, Aviation Technical Services, is based at the airport, and airlines regularly fly in jetliners for work.

Paine is also home to about 650 general aviation planes.

Despite all the activity, the airport is only running at 30 to 45 percent capacity, according to various estimates.

An airline won’t join that fray unless it makes financial sense.

“They’re going to put their equipment where they’re going to get the highest yield,” Rankin said.

According to de Neufville’s research, traffic at secondary airports often serves niche markets, rather than simple spill over.

In recent years, Allegiant Air and Alaska Airlines have expressed guarded interest in Paine, but both backed off.

Allegiant is “constantly in talks with many airports across the country, however we have no immediate plans to service Paine Field,” said Justin Ralenkotter, a spokesman for the Las Vegas-based airline.

Alaska Air did not respond before press time.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole

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