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Originally published Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 9:40 PM

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Mukilteo crowd lambastes Paine Field passenger plan

A hostile Mukilteo crowd told the Federal Aviation Administration Thursday night that its plan to introduce commercial flights at Paine Field could lead to "virtually unlimited operations." A standing-room-only crowd of about 450 people attended the final of three FAA hearings on the proposal by two airlines to begin passenger service at the Snohomish County airport.

Times Snohomish County reporter

A hostile Mukilteo crowd told the Federal Aviation Administration Thursday night that its plan to introduce commercial flights at Paine Field could lead to "virtually unlimited operations."

A standing-room-only crowd of about 450 people attended the final of three FAA hearings on the proposal by two airlines to begin passenger service at the Snohomish County airport. The audience at Kamiak High School hissed and jeered a consultant's report that concluded that there would be no significant environmental impacts from adding about 8,000 commercial flights per year by 2016.

"The FAA has a rubber stamp out waiting for this meeting to end so they can stamp their approval," said Jonathan Whiteman, a Mukilteo resident.

Cathy Reese, a former Mukilteo councilwoman, called the environmental assessment "totally flawed" and said the federal agency is "looking at a few flights rather than the total impacts. It's ludicrous and downright dishonest," she said.

Horizon Air has proposed flying four times a day to Portland and twice a day to Spokane from Paine Field. Allegiant Air has requested twice-a-week flights to Las Vegas.

Paine Field now has 144,000 annual flights, but no commercial passenger service. By 2016, with the added commercial traffic, the number of flights would increase to about 171,000 annually, the draft environmental assessment says.

The airport has three paved runways — one long enough for jets — and now operates at less than 40 percent of its capacity, according to a 2008 study by the city of Everett.

Ryk Dunkelberg, the consultant who conducted the environmental assessment, sought to reassure the crowd that the proposal by the two airlines wasn't the proverbial camel's nose under the tent that would open the airport to unlimited passenger service.

He said additional federal reviews would be triggered if other airlines sought passenger service, if Horizon or Allegiant introduced additional types of aircraft or added additional destinations.

This isn't the first time the issue of commercial flights out of Paine Field has arisen. In 1987, San Juan Airlines launched passenger service from the airport, but discontinued the flights after about a year.

Horizon Air explored the idea of launching service from Paine Field in 1997, but instead bought bigger planes to expand its passenger capacity at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

When the prospect of a third runway at Sea-Tac was proposed in the early-1990s, it was advertised as an alternative to expanding passenger service at regional airports such as Paine Field. But by the time the third runway opened last year, political leaders were already discussing the need for additional airport capacity in the region.

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Not everyone at the hearing opposed the new service.

William Wagner, of Mount Vernon, said expanded commercial service could help buffer the region economically if Boeing, currently the biggest user of Paine Field, decided to leave town. He said the Everett airport is also more convenient.

"I don't want to drive to Seattle," he said.

But most of the audience shared the skepticism of Harold Quimby, of Mukilteo, who said night flights at Paine Field wake him now.

"The noise does not stop at the outlines of the (FAA's) contour map," he said to loud applause.

Frank Nichols, a retired Army pilot from Mukilteo, introduced into evidence a picture he said he'd taken in his backyard of a small owl. He identified it as a northern spotted owl, a threatened species.

The federal environmental assessment concluded that no threatened or endangered species lived in the project area.

"This owl lives right behind my house. I would not like to see it go away," Nichols said to cheers.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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