In the land where the Paris Agreement was rejected the commercial opening of Seattle’s Paine Field airport is delayed by an environmental assessment

15 June, 2018

The start of commercial air service out of (Everett) Paine Field airport between Mukeltio and Everett in Snohomish County, close to Seattle, Washington State, may be delayed from this autumn into next year, depending on an additional review of the impact on noise and ground traffic by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The airport director now projects flights to begin in Jan-2019, thereby missing the high traffic generators of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year.

Paine Field is one of very few new commercial airports being constructed, or converted, or planned for not only in the US, but in the whole of North America. According to the CAPA - Centre for Aviation Airport Construction Database there are just ten of them, and that statistic has remained steady for years.

Paine Field is also an example of the commitment of a small number of US companies from the private sector to airports, something that President Trump encouraged in his 'Infrastructure Plan' in Feb-2018.

The FAA requires a new review because the flight operations now proposed by Alaska Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United would bring many more passengers than originally approved in a 2012 environmental impact assessment.

The conversion of the airport to commercial operations was masterminded by the New York- based private equity firm Propeller Investments, whose privatisation proposal for Briscoe Field airstrip in the Atlanta metropolitan area in Georgia was defeated in 2012 by local opposition.

Propeller Investments returned to Georgia in 2013 with another proposal, to develop passenger service at the relatively new Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport. However, it too fell foul of consistent lobbying hurdles prompting its move to pursue a similar opportunity at Paine Field in Washington State on the US northeast coast and about as far away as you can get from Georgia.

The raison d'être behind both the Atlanta proposals was the perceived need for an alternative to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International, the world's busiest airport, and one that is dominated by Delta Air Lines, which itself was instrumental in blocking those proposals.

The situation at Paine Field is a little different. Situated some 25 miles (40m km) north of Seattle and 38 miles north of Seattle-Tacoma airport (SEA-TAC) it is also 74 miles south of Bellingham Airport, an acknowledged low-cost alternative to Vancouver Airport in Canada's British Columbia province, and one that hosts Alaska Airways and the ULCC Allegiant Air. Paine Field is also the location of the Boeing plant that produces 747, 767, 777, and 787 aircraft.

Recognised for its Boeing manufacturing facilities, Paine Field is located to the north of SeattleSource: Google Maps

Airline intentions for Paine Field are quite comprehensive; more so than at Bellingham, over the border. United Airlines initially (Aug-2017) indicated it would operate six times daily service to its hubs in Denver and San Francisco, while Alaska Airlines announced in Jan-2018 that it would launch 13 daily departures from Paine Field to eight cities along the US West Coast in autumn 2018, employing jet aircraft in all cases. In the same month Southwest said it would operate up to five daily frequencies from Paine Field.

Since then, Propeller Airports has stated it is confident the FAA would approve an additional 12 daily services to the 12 it approved back in 2012 when an initial environmental assessment was completed by the FAA, which covers the route network envisaged by the three carriers as described above.

In all other respects the airport is "ready to go", Propeller Airports seemingly having succeeded where it failed in Georgia, having won both political and airline support. The final lawsuit against commercial service at Paine Field was dismissed by the Washington Supreme Court in Jul-2017.

Construction of the airport's new and of course privately funded 30,000 sq ft terminal is expected to be finalised in Jul-2018 and in terms of customer service it is aiming high, for example by introducing valet car parking and other high-end services.

There is no suggestion yet that it could become an international airport, being classified as a national reliever facility, but the Seattle city-region is an even bigger draw internationally for both business and leisure than is Atlanta, with its congregation of "knowledge industries" (Microsoft, Amazon et al), Boeing, and of course Starbucks. There is also no border control point currently.

Having defeated a hangar full of objections it is somewhat ironic that what is now holding back the airport is an environmental matter and especially so in the light of the agreement that was finalised between the Snohomish County and Japan's Nagoya Chubu Centrair Airport in Nov-2017 for the joint development of environmental management and conservation measures at both airports, including installation of solar panels and deployment of hybrid electric ground handling and passenger vehicles.

But the big issue is noise, fundamentally the same one that has prevented an additional runway being constructed at London's Heathrow Airport for over six decades. Environmental 'fads' come and go, but noise doesn't.

READ MORE: Further information on US airport privatisation may be found in the forthcoming CAPA - Centre for Aviation Airport Privatisation & Finance report.