Propeller Airports CEO sees a brighter future on horizon for Paine Field

Brett Smith speaks to the Lynnwood Chamber of Commerce Wednesday via Zoom.

Propeller Airports CEO Brett Smith believes things are about to take off again at Everett’s Paine Field.

During a virtual presentation to the Lynnwood Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, Smith said that despite reduced passenger counts, flight routes and other challenges associated with COVID-19, he is optimistic about the airport’s future.

Propeller Airports built and manages the Paine Field passenger terminal, which recently entered its third year of providing commercial passenger service out of Everett.

“I feel like 2020 we kind of lost a whole year,” Smith said, adding he knows “people are raring to go and we’re starting to see numbers coming back and that’s positive.” Even though the number of daily flights and total destinations served from Paine Field dropped amid the pandemic last year, “the airport’s still here and we’re still going strong,” he said.

The airport’s first commercial service flight was to Portland on March 4, 2019, and “we grew real quick,” Smith said. “There really hasn’t been any other airport that I’ve come across that’s been able to start with this kind of a bang,” he added, describing it as “really encouraging and exciting,” he said.

Smith said he felt the airport benefited the surrounding area in multiple ways. “We created over 400 direct jobs and a whole lot of economic impact and made people’s lives a lot easier,” he said. “You could literally get to certain cities out of Paine Field before you’d even get to your gate at Sea-Tac.” He pointed to the time involved for someone from Marysville taking a flight to San Francisco out of Sea-Tac Airport, including the commute and the subsequent steps necessary at the airport to then board a flight.

“It’s become an incredibly important part of our community,” Smith said of the airport. “It creates a huge amount of jobs, there’s research here, flight schools, all that military activity, there’s some cargo that goes on and then of course commercial air service.”

Brett Smith congratulating Paine Field’s millionth customer, just before the pandemic hit.

In early 2020, Paine Field celebrated its millionth customer served in just under a year of operations. And then the pandemic hit, decimating travel at airports nationwide. Paine Field soon dropped from offering 24 daily flights down to only four.

But that’s about to change. Smith said starting this Friday, the airport will be back up to seven daily departures via Alaska and United Airlines, which will provide service to destinations including Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Phoenix, San Diego and Santa Ana.

Even so, offering those seven flights still means the airport is operating at only 40% of its total capacity. but that is also going to change, Smith said.

“Throughout the next few months, we’re going to see all of our other destinations come back and we expect by the fourth quarter (of this year) that we’ll be back to 24 daily departures assuming nothing else changes with COVID,’ he said.

Boise has also been added to the list of destinations that people can reach from Paine Field, although flight service there has yet to start. Smith said he was hopeful those flights would begin “within the next few months.”

The experience provided in the Paine Field terminal has been one of the most important considerations, Smith said, with the mission of “making sure the passengers were being treated like people and not just like as a number.” The airport’s goal has always been to get people from the curb to their gate in 10 minutes or less and also to get people from the plane to their car in five minutes or less. Along with being easy to navigate, the terminal provides power at every single waiting-area seat and high-speed internet throughout, plays music and sets out fresh flowers.

“To me, going to an airport is kind of like checking into a hotel for an hour or two,” Smith said. “You want to be comfortable and it was very important for us to make sure the experience reflected that, and I think the world kind of noticed.” Since opening the passenger terminal, Paine Field has garnered several awards for regional and small airports, and one for being an innovative project that is a public-private partnership with Snohomish County, which owns the airport.

The COVID-19 impact on passenger counts at both Paine Field and Sea-Tac airports.

Seeing the sharp drop in business made 2020 a trying year, Smith added. “When you watch your business go from 3,000 people a day to 30, 60 or 80 people a day it’s kind of a shot in the head,” he said of the decrease.

In spring 2020, the airport suddenly had to react to and navigate uncharted waters, during which Smith focused on what he felt was most important — safety. “A lot of people are going to be traveling because they have to travel, not because they want to travel,” he said of his mindset at the time. “Let’s make sure that we have an operation that makes people feel comfortable.”

The passenger terminal began performing electrostatic cleaning between all flights, doing automatic temperature screenings that can alert staff if someone has a fever, and upgrading air filtration systems to hospital-grade HEPA filters throughout the building. Having a small terminal made it much easier “to clean the whole thing very thoroughly,” when compared to bigger airports, he said.

The airport also set about working with its airlines, vendors and governmental partners to “make the most out of this situation,” according to Smith. At one point the facility closed for approximately two months to rebuild an original airplane ramp located at the airport.

During the pandemic, the airport required people entering the building to wear masks “from day one, once that was the guidance that medical professionals were providing,” Smith said. In addition, staff “didn’t allow un-ticketed people into the terminals, you had to be traveling.”

Smith believes those efforts had paid off. “We haven’t had any of our staff actually come down with COVID or any known passengers, so that is a good thing,” he said.

The airport also worked with its various vendors to help them stay open throughout the pandemic because “people coming to the airport need some certain necessities,” Smith said.

Propeller Airports projects that it will return to a full schedule at Paine Field by the end of 2021.

Once business conditions return to normal, Smith believes “there is room to grow and that is something that we would look at with the community and make sure it’s in line with what people want us to do; there’s definitely demand for it.” Alaska Airlines and United Airlines are currently providing service out of the airport, but Smith anticipates that eventually one or two other carriers “will enter the fray.”

He hopes to attract passengers traveling out of Paine Field for a variety of endeavors, but especially business, which in 2019 made up approximately 70% of the airport’s clientele. “Clearly vacation travel is coming back first, everybody is itching to go away,” Smith said, but he anticipates that business travel would also come back in this fall.

The airport’s week-to-week passenger counts haven’t experienced many changes recently, but “obviously when you go further back a year or two years from when we started these are massive numbers changes, to be down 74%,” Smith said. “These are very expensive infrastructure assets to operate, and we’re still losing a massive amount of money, but we’re properly funded, and we are here for the long haul; the airport is going to continue on and be strong,” he said.

“Our staff is itching to go, we didn’t lay off one person during this and we have no intention of doing that at all,” he said. “We’re well positioned to weather this storm however long it takes, but it looks like we’re kind of seeing a light at the end of the tunnel and that’s quite exciting.”

— By Nathan Blackwell

 

  1. Living in Everett my entire life, I don’t and can’t never see Everett as any real “business center”. With this small regional terminal so close to SeaTac International airport (just 30 miles away), which offers any non-stop international or domestic destination anyone could ever want, why would any business traveler choose to add an intermediate connecting flight when he can simply take a non-stop flight from SeaTac? Previous flights from Everett to SFO were totally unreliable and nightmarish intermediate stops, and that’s probably why both United Express and Horizon Airlines canceled these destinations altogether. Everett is probably going to continue as a “Sun Destination” airport for vacation travelers for many years to come, especially in such a depressed airplane manufacturing market as Everett is currently in?

    1. Hi Dorothy,

      (Full disclosure, I’m on the SnoCo Airport Commission at Paine Field).

      I agree that it won’t be a traditional business travel hub, but it has been interesting to see the types of passengers utilizing the airport. BC (before COVID), there was a lot of in-state business travelers and college students going between here and Spokane, leisure travelers flying points south (California) and Las Vegas. I believe it will still be a good short haul airport (somewhat similar to how San Jose Mineta Airport started) post pandemic. On a personal level, I’ve flown out of PAE about 5-6 times over the past 8 months, and paid a little extra for the flight for the convenience factor. There is something about being able to go from curb to TSA to gate in 7 minutes that feels worth it.

      I’d encourage you to share your thoughts and concerns with the Airport Commission, which currently meets quarterly. Our next meeting is slated for April 22 at 6pm: https://www.painefield.com/221/Airport-Commission

      1. I tend to agree with you Alicia, but most regional airports feed into the nearest international hub. I’m a business traveler myself, but when Horizon Airlines was flying to Portland and Spokane, Alaska Airlines would route everything back into SEA for any of my many destinations except for Denver on United Express. Why can’t Alaska Airlines expand to SEATAC like service at PDX or GEG? Certainly, Portland International is big enough for that. I tried connecting through SFO a few times, but what a mess that was!

        1. I noticed this same thing so I agree with you James! I’m a frequent flyer but everything out of Portland that was coming in from Everett went back to Sea Tac. Made me think Alaska Airlines was just using Portland as a regional airport to ship people to their Seattle hub. Maybe that’s why Sea Tac is getting so congested now. My hope was that I could fly from Everett to Portland and then anywhere direct from there but it just didn’t happen, so I’m back to Sea Tac for my direct flights. I would take flights from Everett to Sea Tac if they offered them!

  2. Has anyone checks rates lately? WOW they’re expensive. Did PAE receive any bailout money? Just curious. Flying out of Paine Field may one day be an option for me, but not at current rates, no matter the convenience…

  3. My wife, Peggy Sanders, is an Elder Law Attorney licensed in Arizona as well as Washington. Pre-Covid, she was able to fly directly to Phoenix from Paine Field. The elapsed time from her Edmonds office to the plane was about 40 minutes. It was incredibly convenient – no concern over I-5 traffic jams, no prolonged checking in at the counter and TSA check, no hiking miles to the gate, no crowds. Plus her flights were comfortable with excellent service. Flying should always be like this.

  4. Char, they got very little bailout money the first time around in April 2020 because it was such a new airport ($157,000. In comparison, Bellingham got $5,000,000). The particular flights may vary greatly in prices. To fly to Las Vegas out of Paine Field has only been a $15-$20 difference than flying out of SeaTac, for example.

    1. Alicia, wasn’t the FAA allocated money for airport use and not necessarily for private businesses on airports? It seems like the Everett private terminal uses a great deal of the airport’s infrastructure for free. What was the agreement between the private terminal and the airport regarding FAA airport funding? Maybe that’s the actual problem here.

    2. Alicia, regarding funding of COVID relief for airports, the CEO of the commercial terminal said in this article that he has a “partnership” with Snohomish County, so what does that actually mean? Did the county give up control of the airport, or does the county still have control of Paine Field? What does this mean?

      1. No, the county didn’t give up control. Propeller is a tenant of airport, but commercial instead of GA.

  5. Thanks for info Alicia. It’s not the convenience I have an issue with (I imagine it’s wonderful!). It’s the price!
    I checked for one person to fly non-stop to Palm Springs, CA on 3/31, returning 4/5. Cost on Alaska Airlines was a nonrefundable $698 – seriously… Unless they start offering much better fares for an occasional non-business traveler, I will only get to imagine what it’s like to fly out of PAE.

    1. Given the lack of airline competition at PAE, Alaska and United can probably charge anything the market will bear. With such limited space resources remaining at Paine Field, competing with other airlines (like Seatac) is not physically possible without pushing Boeing right off the airfield. Something to think about folks–right?

  6. In reading this article, I noticed that Brett Smith somehow missed mentioning the importance and great economic value of corporate and private General Aviation at Paine Field (a county owned, public use and FAA designated GA airport since 1987). Perhaps if this private business owner and airport rental tenant–one of many others at Paine Field, including Boeing, Castle & Cooke and ATS just to mention a few–could just accept and acknowledged that, the acceptance of his private terminal business and overall Karma would improve vastly, especially because Brett Smith is also a GA pilot himself. The spirit of Topliff Olin Paine lives in every aviator at Paine Field–not just one!

    1. General Aviation at Paine Field is a huge plus and it is curious that it was not mentioned. We have had a hanger there for almost 30 yrs. it is a great place for GA flight.

      Driving through downtown Seattle is depressing, SeaTac is crowded and you have to leave Edmonds 3+ hours before your flight. Paine Field is a dream to fly out of (commercial flights as well as GA pilots) a beautiful terminal not unlike the travel experience of many years ago when it was considered glamorous. It is worth every penny.

    2. I agree. Why weren’t the other aspects (corporate and private GA) even mentioned? I have a hanger at Paine Field, and we use our airplane frequently for corporate business trips to reach our many customers in the small towns of Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon. The private commercial terminal is nice, but without our corporate GA aircraft at Paine Field, our 25-year very successful business would not continue for long.

  7. I have both a corporate and private hanger at Paine that we use mostly for business flying. The only things mentioned by Brett Smith were “research here, flight schools, all that military activity, there’s some cargo that goes on and then of course commercial air service”. There was no mention of Boeing (biggest commercial aircraft manufacture in the World), private and corporate GA (large presence at Paine), heavy maintenance (thousands of high paying aerospace jobs). I don’t recall seeing any military presence or cargo operations at Paine. Boeing brings in some completed assemblies using their fleet of Dreamlifters (four converted 747’s), but there’s no commercial cargo nor military operations at Paine Field. Boeing is currently building new converted 767 tankers for the military, but Boeing was not even mentioned.

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