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.”
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.
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.
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