Paine Field Airline Debate Focuses on FAA Protection Laws

Paine Field Airline Debate Focuses on FAA Protection Laws

By Terry Stephens

Community debate over allowing a regional airline presence at Snohomish County Airport/Paine Field (PAE) is heating up, but supporters claim that little known federal airport protection laws prohibit the county from banning those flights, essentially making the whole discussion a moot issue.

A debate over opening up Paine Field to regional airlines is heating up in Snohomish County.

A debate over opening up Paine Field to regional airlines is heating up in Snohomish County.

Save Our Communities opposes opening the airport to air carriers. The citizens group argues that the 1979 Mediated Role Determination agreement that has governed the county airport’s development plans for 27 years—encouraging general aviation and discouraging commercial passenger and cargo service—can be maintained and even strengthened to prohibit ever having airline flights at the county airport.

Presently, the MRD document has no binding legal status. Airport supporters who want to invite, and even entice, airlines to come to Paine Field to boost the local economy say even transforming the MRD into a county ordinance wouldn’t block airlines if they wanted to set up shop, since FAA regulations say airline access cannot be prohibited.

At a May meeting of a citizen study group appointed by Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon to review the document, supporters of airline flights said federal laws protect the airport’s right to make room for an airline presence. Not only does the Federal Aviation Administration require access to the airfield if airlines request it, because Paine Field has received millions of dollars in federal airport funds over several decades, but there’s also the federal Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990. The Snohomish County Private Enterprise Coalition maintains that congressional legislation that requires airlines to invest in quieter engines but also “prohibits discrimination or legal constraints to block commercial service at the nation’s airports” nullifies the MRD.

In a presentation for the PEC, Hans Toorens, owner of Worldwide Business Development, Marketing and Sales Management, in Monroe, explained that the MRD is no longer relevant since Congress passed the Airport Noise and Capacity Act in 1990.

“The ANCA legislated the elimination of all Stage 2 (high-noise level) airliners in the United States by the end of 1999, established criteria for noise and access restrictions at U.S. airports and prohibited discrimination or legal constraints to block commercial service,” he said.

Toorens said that since 2000 all new aircraft over 75,000 pounds operating in the continental United States have used even quieter Stage 3 engines and, today, new airliners in production are being equipped with Stage 4 ultra-quiet jet engines. He said the outdated MRD, based on 1978 aircraft noise “footprints” that extended for miles beyond each end of the runway, has no foundation as a guide to aviation uses at Paine Field.

A recent announcement from Sea-Tac International Airport officials supports the positive impact of quieter jet engines, which eliminate the high-decibel noise normally at the heart of most community-based anti-airport protests. Earlier this year, a Sea-Tac news release announced that the use of quieter regional jets by Horizon Air—which has been flying the Bombardier CRJ-700 jets since 2001—had won the airline the airport’s Fly Quiet award for 2005, since the planes “produce significantly less noise than the aircraft they replaced.”

Toorens also presented letters written by former special deputy prosecuting attorney Edward Level, who represented Paine Field in legal matters for many years. He expressed his legal interpretation that federal and state laws govern and control operation of public airports, not non-legal documents such as Paine Field’s MRD.

“The county holds title to the airport as a trustee for the benefit of the public, particularly users of the airport,” Toorens said, reading from Level’s letters. “The airport was deeded to the county by the federal government ‘on the condition that it is to be used as a (public) airport . without discrimination,'” Level wrote.

Supporters say that Paine Field has been prepared over several decades to serve general aviation, business and commercial airline service. More than $30 million in federal funding has been invested at the airport during the past 14 years, including the recent construction of an $8 million FAA-staffed control tower. Also, more than $300 million has been invested in road systems around Paine Field by Boeing, Snohomish County and state and federal agencies in support of the Boeing 747, 767, 777 and 787 assembly plant at the north end of the airport.

PEC spokesman Tom Hoban, CEO of Coast Real Estate Services in Everett, Wash., noted the important role of airports in developing and sustaining the local economy. He said he regularly talks with businesses that are interested in locating in Snohomish County until they experience I-5’s traffic mess and realize the county has no plans for airline service at Paine Field. He said that forces businesses, as well as the general public, to travel highly congested Interstate 5 to board flights at Sea-Tac.

“Too often, I lose these business prospects I’m trying to recruit, businesses and jobs that should be coming to Snohomish County,” Hoban said. “We believe that this airport can be developed with airline service without impacting communities around it with more noise. This isn’t a business versus SOC issue. Business creates jobs and opportunities and supports our way of life. Business has a stake in how this county-owned asset is used.”

Businesses that see a need for an airline presence to stimulate economic growth argue that if the MRD “advisory” document is continued to be used as a county guideline for airport development, it should be changed to encourage and welcome any interested airlines. In fact, the MRD was modified a few years ago to encourage expansion of aviation-related industries, business aviation and even air taxi and commuter service, but it still “discouraged” air cargo and air passenger services.

Reardon said he formed the review group to study, update and clarify the intent of the MRD agreement. Airline service promoters say they believe updating the MRD means focusing on supporting airline services now that noise issues have been mitigated.

The SOC citizens group, formed primarily by residents of Mukilteo, Wash., who bought homes close to the airport, and supported by the former and current mayor of the city, claims thousands of members in the county but publishes no membership lists. It’s dedicated to “preserving our quality of life by retaining the current role of Paine Field (as a general aviation airport) established by the 1979 MRD,” according to Gregory Hauth, a Mukilteo resident and financial planning consultant with SmithBarney in Seattle.

Hauth said members accept the fact that the airfield already is a major aviation hub in the Pacific Northwest, a thriving general aviation facility that is home base to hundreds of light aircraft and flight-line host to the adjacent Boeing Co. airliner assembly plant that makes its test flights and airline deliveries from Paine Field. Beyond Boeing, however, Goodrich Aviation Technical Services at Paine Field maintains and upgrades planes for major airlines, flying a variety of older aircraft in and out of the field—aircraft that are far louder than the newer jetliners that would serve regional routes if airlines come to Paine Field. Still, he said SOC maintains its opposition to regional airline traffic at Paine Field.

“It’s a myth that Paine Field cannot discriminate against airline service,” he said, although he admits any such discriminative move would forfeit approximately $2 million a year in federal airport funds. “But, that would be “far less than the $1 billion of estimated expenses (for a terminal, roadways and other facilities) related to approving airline service.”

He said SOC’s research also has estimated that an airline presence at Paine Field could cause 10 to 25 percent losses in property values for homes near the airport, plus cost millions of dollars for such things as soundproofing schools in the flight paths of the planes. Hauth urges approval of a proposed inter-local agreement between Snohomish County and Mukilteo to “continue to emphasize a general aviation role for the airport and to strongly discourage all other uses, such as scheduled air service or air cargo service.”

The city councils of the adjacent Washington communities of Mukilteo, Edmonds, Woodway, Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace have backed SOC by passing resolutions against development of airline use of Paine Field. Observers say, though, that for county, state and federal aviation agencies responsible for providing an adequate air travel system, time is running out to develop future capacity in the state’s airport system.

That’s why a new, three-year, statewide airport study ordered by the Washington Legislature may provide the final answer to the question of whether Paine Field will become a regional airfield to serve the Puget Sound region’s growing economy—an economy that is increasingly dependent upon having adequate aviation facilities for support, particularly needed airports.

Unlike urban areas in many other states, Washington has no regional airport developed as a secondary airfield to handle the overflow of Sea-Tac’s burgeoning air travel business. Sea-Tac is expected to reach its capacity of 45 million passengers and 550,000 flights annually by 2021, only 15 years away. Interstate 5, the main route to Sea-Tac from both the north and the south, already has reached its capacity for most daytime periods.

Now in its second year, the study is taking an inventory of the state’s entire airport network—141 city, county, public port, private and state-owned airfields. Once the report is presented to the state legislature, it could spur significant changes, including development of new airports or enlarging the role of existing facilities.

The push for that legislation began with lawmakers’ increasing concerns that the state needs to do better at creating and maintaining the needed capacity for a variety of aviation-related operations. The study will include identifying where new airports may be needed, or which older ones may need upgrading to fill gaps in the network, with a specific emphasis on the development of more commercial aviation in the state.

Statewide, airports fulfill essential roles for both commercial and general aviation. Those roles contribute to the state’s economic strength and growth, as well as providing important facilities for flying opportunities, incubation space for new businesses and search-and-rescue operations.

The aviation division of the state’s Department of Transportation will lead the study.

“It’s a completely new approach by the Legislature to find out what we have in the state system and compare it to what we will need in the future,” said Nisha Hanchinamani, the division’s spokesperson in Arlington. “We’ll be looking at the entire system to see where we have capacity (to grow) and what needs there are to fill. The study will be tied to such aspects as economic development.”

First, there will be an assessment of current abilities, including such things as an analysis of passenger and air cargo facilities, involving both commercial and general aviation; the condition of each airport; available facilities and services, including fixed base operators, fuel services and ground services; and existing airspace capacity. An even more detailed analysis of those issues will be developed for the Puget Sound, southwest Washington, Spokane, and Tri-Cities regions.

At a minimum, the analysis must address a forecast of future airport facility needs to meet the growing demand for passenger and air cargo operations, airline planning, aviation trends and demographic, geographic and market factors affecting future air travel demand. The analysis also will determine when the state’s existing commercial service airports will reach their capacity, the growth research conducted by state and metropolitan planning organizations, how the research of regional transportation planning organizations can help, the role of the Federal Aviation Administration and how airport sponsors can help identify and address future aviation needs.

In mid-2007, the aviation department will submit its analysis to the legislature and other government officials and agencies. Primary attention in the study’s recommendations will be given to those airports or regions that will reach capacity at their aviation facilities before the year 2030.

If the legislature passes airport network legislation, the governor would appoint an aviation planning council consisting of the director of the aviation division; the director of the department of Community, Trade and Economic Development; a member of the state transportation commission; and two members of the general public familiar with airport issues, including their impact on their communities. The council also will have a technical expert who is familiar with Federal Aviation Administration airspace and control issues, a commercial airport operator, a member of the growth management hearings board, a representative of the Washington airport management association and an airline representative.

Together, members of the council will make recommendations to government committees about how to best meet statewide commercial and general aviation capacity need, including determining the placement of future commercial and general aviation airport facilities needed to improve aviation services in the state.

According to PEC members, that statewide airport study—a study that will take a broader view of the airport’s future than the Snohomish County study of the aging “mediation” agreement—seems most likely to determine the future role of Paine Field in the state’s aviation and economic development programs.