Editorial: Paine Field’s biggest news wasn’t name change

Passage of FAA’s reauthorization can deliver important policy and funding for U.S. airports, passengers.

People arrive at the entrance to the passenger terminal during the grand opening of the Paine Field Airport on March 4, 2019 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald file photo)

People arrive at the entrance to the passenger terminal during the grand opening of the Paine Field Airport on March 4, 2019 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald file photo)

By The Herald Editorial Board

The most consequential news last month for Paine Field may not have been its name change to Seattle Paine Field International Airport.

Whether that move pays off as intended in increasing the visibility of the airport for travelers, tourists and investors — at the cost of injuring the pride of some locals — will likely take time to prove.

The bigger deal, instead, was a vote by the U.S. House to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration for another five years, legislation that includes significant policy updates and funding for airports of all sizes across the nation, including the Airport Formerly Known as Snohomish County Airport Paine Field.

The legislation passed the House on July 20 by a significant bipartisan margin — yes, that still happens — 351 to 69.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and one of the authors of the legislation, said in a statement following passage that the legislation would “bolster America’s global aviation leadership.”

Noting the vote, preceded by a 63-0 vote out of committee, Larsen said: “This good faith process yielded a bipartisan bill that will create a safer, cleaner, greener and more accessible U.S. aviation system. It will maintain our gold standard in safety and innovation, make a more sustainable and resilient aviation sector a reality and improve accessibility and consumer protections for all passengers.”

Among the provisions in the legislation that passed the House, the reauthorization bill:

Directs the FAA to increase hiring of air traffic controllers;

Expands funding for airport ground surveillance and detection equipment to alert air traffic controllers to potential runway debris and close calls between airliners;

Requires a final rule on additional barriers on airliners to protect flight decks and crews;

Requires the FAA to coordinate with the U.S. Forest Service on the use of drones in wildfire detection, mitigation and fire suppression and work with the National Interagency Fire Center to facilitate wildfire response;

Directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to require airlines to develop policies regarding reimbursement for passengers for hotel and meal costs when flights are canceled or significantly delayed;

Requires airlines to develop resiliency plans to prevent and limit large-scale flight disruptions;

Directs the DOT to draft recommendations to reduce damage to wheelchairs and mobility aids; and authorizes the FAA to establish research to improve passenger aircraft accessibility; and

Requires airlines to ensure that young children can be seated next to parents or caregivers when seats are available.

Larsen, earlier in July, discussed other provisions of the bill, specific to the interests of Paine Field, with airport and county staff prior to passage in the House.

Among items of local interest, the legislation includes grant funding for a number of programs for which the airport and others would be eligible, chief among them a $650 million increase in funding for general aviation Airport Improvement Program funding for a total of $4 billion in funding for airport upgrades.

Joshua Marcy, the airport’s director, said Paine Field intends to line up for much of that funding, including grants to aid airports in disposing the firefighting foam that contains toxic PFAS chemicals, also known as “forever chemicals” and finding alternatives to that foam.

As well, there’s expanded funding for repair and replacement for airports’ automated weather observation systems, used when the airport’s tower isn’t operating between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., allowing pilots to get current weather information for airports and reducing the need to redirect flights to other airports.

Marcy said he was also hoping for funding for grants to speed general aviation’s transition to the use of unleaded fuel, a switch that the reauthorization bill requires by 2030. Currently, Marcy said, pilots of private aircraft have to certify planes to use unleaded fuel, a process that can cost $1,000.

“That’s going to be a big, huge transition in aviation as far as clean air goes.” Marcy said.

And while the funding doesn’t go to Paine Field directly, Marcy said there’s excitement about funding for aerospace and fuels innovation and workforce training, including for the county and WSU-Everett for a research and development center that will help test new cleaner and sustainable aviation fuels, including lower-carbon biofuels.

The bill, Larsen said, triples workforce training grants to $45 million and expands its current funding for pilot and maintenance worker training and will now include manufacturing.

The airport supports that investment in education, said Dawson Frank, the airport’s deputy director for operations.

“Our understanding is that it could really impact the community colleges, like Everett Community College, and the technical institutes that do the training,” Frank said.

The Senate is now considering its own version of the FAA reauthorization. It delayed mark-up of its bill until September, and after passage would then have to work with the House to reconcile the two bills, but will have to do so before the end of September when the current authorization expires.

One potential sticking point, Larsen noted, was a proposal to increase the retirement age for commercial pilots to 67, from the current age limit of 65. While it might help stem a shortage of pilots, Larsen said he opposed a similar proposal in the House bill, noting that the international standard remains at 65 and wouldn’t mesh with a change to the U.S. standard.

“It would mess up a lot of human resources policies for the airlines,” he said.

Larsen, however, a veteran of congressional sausage-making, remained confident about the reauthorization’s passage out of both chambers.

“This bill will die 1,000 deaths before it gets to life 1,001,” he said, but he expects it will win reauthorization.

And it could stand as an example of Congress’ ability to reach consensus.

Overshadowed by divisive committee investigations, threats of impeachment, stalled confirmations and rebellions over appropriation bills, the House’s nearly unnoticed vote to reauthorize and fund the FAA, its programs and more than 3,300 airports across the U.S., shows those divisions as political performances; and that Congress is capable of agreement.

That’s a reminder for Congress, as it considers passage of appropriations bills that would avoid a government shutdown — if agreement can be reached by Sept. 30 — that would be harmful and painful for Americans.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial gave transposed the first and last names of Paine Field’s Deputy Director for Operations Dawson Frank.

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