Updated Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 09:25 PM
The Federal Aviation Administration approved commercial passenger flights from Paine Field Tuesday, potentially transforming the general-aviation airport into a small Sea-Tac competitor.
Allegiant Air, a regional airline that flies mostly out of small airports, including Bellingham, has expressed interest in Paine Field. Alaska Airlines said it would be interested, too, if another carrier like Allegiant begins flying there.
In 2009, Alaska said it would add as many as 140 flights a year, but it has since said the region is well-served by Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Bellingham International Airport. It's not clear how many flights either airline would run out of Paine Field, or where they would fly. Allegiant is based in Las Vegas; Alaska Airlines, in Seattle.
A court battle is likely, and the airport has no passenger terminal, so the first flights are probably years away.
An organized community group has opposed commercial flights at Paine Field for decades, and Mukilteo plans to appeal the FAA's decision. In the meantime, the state must do an environmental study and Snohomish County, which owns and operates the airport, would have to figure out how to fund and build a passenger terminal.
The future of Paine Field, wedged between Everett's Boeing plant and Mukilteo, with its water-view homes and suburban neighborhoods, has been in contention since the airport was built in 1936. It remains one of the county's hottest political topics.
The FAA spent three years responding to public comments and studying the impact of 8,340 additional flight operations a year at the airport over five years. The airport is operating now at about a third of its capacity of 350,000 operations a year, said Airport Director Dave Waggoner.
In the run-up to the FAA's final decision, the county planned a two-gate, 30,000-square-foot terminal for the airport, but has vowed not to spend county money on it. Any agreement with airlines would include a terminal that would pay for itself with revenue, the county says.
Paine Field was envisioned for commercial flights in the 1930s, but the military needed it during World War II to test planes and protect its Bremerton shipyards and Boeing plant in Seattle.
In 1966, Boeing began building aircraft near the field and it became Snohomish County's industrial heart. Businesses there produce almost $20 billion in revenue annually and 30,000 jobs, according to a recent government study.
Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine said he is concerned that passenger flights would compete with industry in the area. Some of his constituents are also concerned about noise, traffic and their inability to limit the number of commercial flights at the airport.
"We've never really been concerned about 10 or 12 flights a day," Marine said. "The problem is, once you allow that, the only thing that limits the flights is how many people are willing to buy a ticket, how many flights can take off and leave every day, and how much room there is at the airport."
He plans to meet with attorneys this week to discuss an appeal.
Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon also opposes passenger flights at the airport, but Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson supports them.
In a statement Tuesday, Stephanson said: "Commercial air is necessary for economic development and job growth. Hopefully we'll soon be working with a company to provide commercial air at Paine Field."
There is no passenger terminal at the airport, where 95 percent of the flights are general aviation. The other 5 percent are flights by Boeing jets — the 787 is being assembled in Everett — and flights to and from Aviation Technical Services, formerly Goodrich Aerospace, which maintains and repairs jets.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.
BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Paine Field, owned and operated by Snohomish County, is in the lower right of this view; Boeing is beyond, in upper left. Beyond them both is downtown Everett. The issue of adding commercial flights to the airport has been controversial since it was built in 1936.