Washington’s Paine Field Begins Commercial Service This Fall and It’s Already Out of Room

Alaska Airlines, Southwest, United

There’s nothing quite like building a brand-spanking-new terminal only to find out that it’s completely full before it even opens. This sounds like really poor demand planning, right? Oh no. This is all by design. Airlines have tried to open up Paine Field, north of Seattle, to commercial flights for years, and now it’s finally happening. The problem is that demand has already outstripped supply. This sounds like a good problem to have, but then again, maybe this will end up looking like the rush into Cuba. Every airline wanted in, but once they saw the lack of demand, they wanted right back out .

It has been more than a decade since Allegiant and Alaska (via Horizon) started talking about flying from Paine Field. With Sea/Tac the only substantial commercial airport in the Seattle area (forget about minor prop flights from Boeing Field), it stands to reason that another airport might be attractive. Sea/Tac is south of Seattle, so something on the north side has the most appeal. After all, those roads are traffic-choked, so people might appreciate the ability to avoid crawling through Seattle just to catch a flight. At least, that was the thought.

The surrounding community, however, disagreed and decided to fight. This sounds nuts since Paine Field is the home of Boeing’s primary widebody final assembly plant. There are 787s, 777s, and the occasional 747 and 767 roaring out of that place all the time. But a couple of commercial flights? THE END IS NEAR!

Sure enough, all of this posturing got the communities a seat at the table. A few years ago it was decided that a terminal would be built, but it would be limited to two measly gates. That is exactly what is being built by a little outfit called Propeller Airports. Propeller Airports is apparently trying to specialize in highly-controversial airports. Its other project is the proposed second Atlanta airport, one which is being fought tooth and nail. At least the Paine Field project is happening. It will open this Fall.

Allegiant is no longer in the picture, but three other airlines quickly filled the void.

Alaska Airlines
Alaska remained interested the whole way through, and it announced long ago it would fly once the terminal opened. There had been plenty of speculation about where those flights would go, and while the schedule isn’t out, we do know which cities will get service. There will be 13 daily departures spread between Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orange County, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose. Wow, that’s 8 cities that need to split those 13 flights. Either one city gets lucky and gets a business schedule while the rest take scraps, or this whole strategy is about the leisure customer and they’ll just be divvied up with a couple flights here and a couple there.

I’d imagine the latter is most likely. I suppose the pitch is that if you live north of Seattle and fly Alaska for work out of Sea/Tac, when it comes time to take that leisure trip, make your life easy and fly from Paine Field. Maybe this will help woo someone who was considering switching loyalty over to Delta. Or maybe it’ll just be bad news and dilute Alaska’s Sea/Tac flying (a little). Either way, it’s not a very big investment; we’re talking about 13 flights on Embraer 175s every day. Worst case, it fails and Alaska walks away, but it makes sense to try since Alaska is the hometown airline.

United Airlines
United was something of a surprise to me. The airline doesn’t have much of a presence at Seattle now. It’s down to solely serving its domestic hubs from the airport. Then I realized… Boeing headquarters is in Chicago so maybe this is a play for that traffic. Nope.

United will run 6 daily flights, but not one of them will touch Chicago. Instead, flights will go to Denver and San Francisco. This is a very Delta-esque strategy of trying to fly to the nearest hubs from every big airport in a large metro area. And hey, United likes these small airports now, right? This will fit United’s new mantra of being all about connections in smaller cities.

The most recent entrant is Southwest. The airline said last week it would have 5 daily flights in the Fall. Where will the airline fly? No clue, but were I a betting man, I’d say Oakland gets the majority, if not all. This may also seem like an odd choice for Southwest, but I suppose it’s similar to the Long Beach strategy. This is Southwest wanting to serve a metro area well. If it has people flying to a couple destinations on the airline from Paine, then those people will be more likely to choose Southwest over others on other trips from Sea/Tac. Or something like that.

All in all, this means there will be 24 daily departures off those two soon-to-be overworked gates. The original plan was to have far fewer flights. This is going to require some tight coordination. One gate should be all Alaska’s, and that will be easier to manage. But the other gate is going to have a mix of all three airlines. Talk about a headache.

Now we sit and wait. Once service starts in the Fall, I look forward to seeing how long it is before someone cuts back. Then again, maybe demand will boom. The surrounding communities are undoubtedly hoping for the former.

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49 comments on “Washington’s Paine Field Begins Commercial Service This Fall and It’s Already Out of Room

  1. I have been meaning to ask you, what ever became of the rush into Cuba. I remember you doing multiple stories during the build up, but do not remember anything after flights actually started. What happened to that story?

    1. John – Well, it has disappointed as expected. Outside key markets like Miami to Havana, there has been little success. Cuba just isn’t built out with the kind of infrastructure needed to support all this capacity. It doesn’t help when the US government starts tightening relations back up as well and adding restrictions. Things were bad before that, but it’s not going to help.

  2. A second Seattle area commercial airport seems foolish to me. For starters, while a decent sized city there isn’t precedent for metro areas under 4M population to have multiple airports. Secondly, geographically they are pretty darn close at 36 miles. By comparison SFO and OAK are about the same distance separated, by car, but there’s a huge body of water dividing them as well. Detroit metro has a larger population than Seattle and one could easily argue the affluent NW suburbs are further distance separated from DTW than Everett is from Sea-Tac. Alaska’s move looks like leisure travel and I think that’s at best what this could support, and even that I’m skeptical of.

    1. Seattle traffic can be very, very bad on the north-south corridor (I-5) between Everett and Sea-Tac causing many people to spend more time in their car than on the plane to their destination if originating from north of the city. I don’t buy into the body of water argument because having to travel through the downtown core can prove to be an equally challenging obstacle. Additionally, Sea-Tac seems to be more operationally constrained as compared to DTW at this point in time.

    2. FNT is closer to the NW Suburbs than DTW, ut the schedules are terrible and businesses travellers don’t want to go to Flint.

      1. It’s a much smaller metro area, but DAY gets a good bit of traffic from the Cincinnati metro area.

        For businesses and residents on the north side of the Cincinnati metro area (think: Blue Ash and points north), which has lots of Kroger & P&G offices and upper middle class or better neighborhoods, DAY (Dayton’s airport) is about the same time from door to gate as CVG, which requires driving through downtown Cincinnati and crossing the bridge into Kentucky, followed by a much longer (time + distance) schlep from car to gate. The drive from northern Cincy metro area to CVG is also much more variable in terms of time required than the drive to DAY, and for many years CVG was still essentially a fortress hub for Delta (even when Delta “dehubbed” it, whether officially or not), with some of the highest fares in the country.

        It’s been a few years since I lived in Cincy, and I know that some additional competition has crept into the area some, but I’m sure DAY still catches a lot of travelers who live or work 30+ miles to the south of that airport.

      2. FNT is a great airport and serves a large, minimum 100 mile customer radius that includes more than NW Detroit suburbs. The tragedy is SW is pulling out of FNT, even to its MDW hub. Myself and family and friends used it all the time. This is just wrong.

    3. If this takes away even a small percentage of drivers who are going down I-5 from Snohomish county to SEA, it’ll be a success. While there isn’t a large body of water in the way, the Seattle area only has one major highway from north to south and given population growth, it’s only going to get more congested over time. It makes sense to try and have a small commercial airport to cater to the needs of the 1 million or so people in the Snohomish county catchment area.

    4. There are two large bodies of water separating Everett and Seatac; Lake Washington and Puget Sound geographically constrain the city of Seattle, which makes the north-south traffic pretty awful. The train may help get people down to Seatac from the north side of Seattle once the Northgate station opens.

    5. Having had to make business trips to Bothell, Redmond, and Kirkland, I will be very happy to avoid I-405 south of Bellevue.

    6. Charlotte, Orlando, and Columbus all have populations around 2 million and have 2 airports with the secondary being a small operation.

      1. Charlotte and Columbus have commercial airline service at a secondary airport? I know Orlando has MCO and SFB. Tampa Bay area has TPA and PIE. But I don’t know of other commercial service in the first two cities besides CLT and CMH.

    7. Those 36 miles can take two hours by car, even more if something bad happens on I-5. 405 is a bit better if you’re willing to pay the tolls for the HOT lane, but even then, at peak times it can take an hour or more. Two gates and 25 flights seems like a piece of cake to me. Even if United bails, Alaska will be happy to take those slots… they will fill planes from that airport if the fares are comparable to SEA.

  3. The success or failure of the flights will depend on how much of a premium, if any, the airlines operating there can charge relative to their flights from SEA.

  4. The difference in parking, ticketing, security, and walking to the gate is probably worth an hour. Add in traffic and the equal time point might be *south* of the downtown cores of Seattle and Bellevue, but certainly as far as the ship canal. Alaska made a mistake in not buying out the whole airport, they have no ability to upgauge or add frequency now.

    I’d think Southwest would have a couple DEN flights for those eastward and midcon flows.

    1. Yes, it may have been a mistake for Alaska to not buy the whole Paine Airport, but again they just bought a whole airline recently and are still very much in the middle of that merger. Just the logistics and equipment that has to be bought and spent during a merger is extensive and expensive, in addition to the cash that Alaska dolled out to buy Virgin America in the first place. Alaska may not have the cash on hand to do a whole buyout of Paine, but maybe they will a few years down the road.

  5. This morning, the traffic time from the Paine Field area to Seatac is listed on Google maps @ 127 minutes. Since the area is still in mega growth and the north south freeways are physically constrained, how could this not be successful? In addition to all of the rapidly growing communities north of Seattle, there are a substantial number of Canadians that drive to Seatac to catch flights. Propeller leased 11 acres, my feeling (and my hope) is that in a few years they will be expanding.

    1. Good point about the Canucks driving south. Don’t they represent a lot of the air traffic on leisure flights out of Bellingham? I know for a while some ULCCs were running flights out of there, and I assume they still do.

      1. Allegiant has a big, for them at least, base at BLI with flights to Vegas, Phoenix, LA, Oakland, San Diego and Palm Springs.

  6. I’ve been waiting for this (and they have been talking about it) for decades. If I go to SEA, at 0400, it’s a 40 minute drive. At 0700, it’s twice that, at least.

    If I pack lightly, I can literally walk to the terminal at PAE in less than an hour; it’s 10 minutes by vehicle. Add in the time saving in getting through TSA and to the gate, I can leave for my flight 90 minutes before departure instead of 4 hours.

    1. That’s my primary interest. I need to go to Vancouver a lot, but our preferred method is to fly into Seattle (or recently Bellingham) and drive into Canada, because domestic flying is significantly cheaper. I’d welcome Paine field as an alternative, it’d give me more choices since there’s limited flights to Bellingham and because it’s preferrable to having to cross downtown if flying into SeaTac.

      1. Frank, you know that starting in March, Harbour Air and Kenmore Air will be offering direct air service from South Lake Union in Seattle to Downtown Vancouver BC?

  7. PAE is a good start- next should be TCM (Mcchord AFB) in Tacoma! There are other examples of an air force base sharing the runway with a commercial terminal. I think the Puget Sound area could easily support a major airport and 2 smaller/alternative airports. I know I would fly from TCM at a slightly higher cost in a heartbeat.

    1. Good point. I was wondering if there was an airport to bracket SeaTac. You have Olympia, the capital of Washington which is in Thurston county to the south, and they either have to drive an hour upto Seatac or two hours down to Portland. A TCM airport would cut that in commute in half.

  8. Regarding Paine Field, as the site of the Seattle north airport, believe not more than a dozen heavies a day coming from Boeing. A large number of general aviation flights do take place on daily basis.

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

  9. Bellingham also has several carriers and perhaps Allegiant prefers to stay there (serving Canadian market also?)

  10. I read an article this morning that quoted Alaska’s CEO as saying that most connections are expected to be handled at Portland for Paine Field Alaska flyers. Question, would people in the northern Seattle ‘burbs rather have a connection in PDX to fly to places such as Austin, Orlando, DC rather than fight traffic/drive to SEA for a nonstop flight?

    1. Yes! PDX is a lovely and easy to navigate airport, great food choices, and a simple layout. I’d see changing planes there as much simpler than fighting the long commute from the north end if the fares were equivalent because the door to door time might be equal anyway.

  11. I read an article this morning quoting Alaska’s CEO in which he stated that most connections for Alaska fliers originating at Paine Field will be made through Portland. Question, do you think- in general, northern Seattle ‘burb residents, those loyal to Alaska, would rather have a connection in PDX to fly to places such as Austin, Orlando, DC versus fighting traffic to SEA for a nonstop flight?

    1. It depends. Based on time of day, it’s easier to take a connection form a smaller regional airport than to get a non-stop from a hub. I fly out of SJC and even if I could get a non-stop out of SFO, I’ll take the connection and fly from the airport 10 minutes from my house. I don’t want to drive up 280 or 101. The exception is if I do a trip that flies out and back on a weekend, I might consider the trip to SFO (but it costs more to get a ride and it’s still 45 minutes longer each way).

    2. I was going to suggest that this probably is in AS’s strategy. They already fly SEA-PDX a lot so PAE-PDX should get some local traffic as well, and some connecting traffic as well. Essentially it is supporting PDX and using it as a bit of a reliever hub to SEA.

      1. I’m surprised that there’s so much air traffic demand to simply fly between Seattle and Portland. They are only about 3 hours apart by car. It would be like flying PHL – DCA instead of taking the train or driving.

        1. The train is okay but a somewhat circuitous route through Tacoma. It takes longer than driving. And the I-5 from Seattle to Olympia can be horrid. If work was paying for it, I could easily see flying.

        2. You can take light rail from the Seattle area to SEA, and then light rail from PDX to most parts of Portland. If you want to or need to skip the car, it’s faster than light rail – Amtrak – light rail and the prices aren’t much different either.

        3. Driving can be highly variable depending on traffic, and the train is 3.5 hours if it’s on time. (The cascades is probably okay, but it can run late.)

          The plane route is really reliable, and probably quicker even with TSA etc.

  12. I think this will be a success due to the really crappy traffic situation in Seattle. It was a mistake to make the terminal so small. SEA is getting to be more like LA and the Bay Area in terms of crowding.

  13. I was expecting Alaska to get creative for the Boeing crowd and have PAE service to Chicago and maybe even Charleston. Their destinations seem fairly obvious. They will probably do multiples to PDX for connectivity, 1x to the rest.

    1. Flights from PDX to Hawaii always seem substantially cheaper than SEA (in fact they try to sell connecting flights through there) so I’d bet connecting to Hawaii will do pretty well for Paine. There actually seems to be a market for flying between Portland and Seattle area – the traffic is getting so bad on that route. Easily four hours from Everett some days. I’d bet at least two flights to SFO given the tech industry.

  14. Southwest is coming in for two reasons:

    1) continue to put heat on AS at every turn (like they’re doing in California and, soon, Hawaii (e.g. Alaska declared they want a piece of WN’s California business and WN won’t take it lieing down)
    2) They do lots of MTX at PAE and this could let them eliminate the ferry flights between SEA & PAE.

    I’d say #1 is the primary driver. This isn’t about WN making an indent in Seattle and WN has a history of not backing off quickly.

  15. I guess another way around the 2 gates only would be parking aircraft remotely and having pax walk to them with no jetways. Climb those stairs a la Burbank. Kind of a pain in the rain-filled climate.

  16. Shocking number of folks here talking out their earhole (A,Tim, AD, Nick), like they’ve never been to the area. Or anywhere else.

    The growth is all moving north. The Sea Tac vicinity is constrained by legacy small highways (2-3 lanes on the 5), somewhat like the Edens Expressway feeding from the north into Chicago – only three lanes Hell Wilshire Blvd is three lanes each way in rush hour. A: you ever tried driving SFO-Oak in rush hour? I have. Now you understand my tone. Detroit is a spread out leisurely drive by comparison.

    Tim – it will be interesting to see the pricing but I disagree success is dependent on a large premium.
    This is the exact kind of flying newer gen mid-sized aircraft like the E175 are supposed to facilitate.
    Plus, who knows what subsidies are involved etc, I wouldn’t be surprised by a modest premium, but because of demand. While North of Seattle is growing, in part it’s because cost of living is cheaper, not because everyone is flush with dot.com booty.

    AD & Nick: Tacoma? C’mon. As you describe, you are literally surrounded by major airports, one of which is NAMED AFTER YOU. Not ever happening.

    Now Julia, someone making sense: totally agree, PDX is about as good as it gets airport wise for amenities and super easy connecting. Should I need to connect from LAX, I won’t hesitate.

    I am going to suggest that the expansion to PAE is the total opposite of the Cuba expansion: Cuba expansion never, ever passed the sniff test. Really, who wants or needs to go there on a regular basis that isn’t, unfortunately, dirt poor. Conversely, for anyone who’s ever driven the Seattle area, this feels like a slam dunk. Not only will these flights be full, they may well command a premium. I will predict at LEAST similar load factors to Sea/Tac in the mid 80’s.

  17. I actually have heard directly from Mayor Gregerson of Mukilteo, the city directly west of Paine Field where most of the NIMBY actions were coming from, that once Alaska announced the flights, people were a bit more relaxed , as they can picture themselves using the service.

  18. PAE wont be like Cuba. There is plenty of demand and only 2 gates. The leased area for the terminal is small and constrained (maybe by NIMBY choice). It looks like they can squeeze in only a 3rd plane.

    While AS may use PDX for connections, ultimately, they will see which flights have the greatest yield and fly them. They will also eventually use the largest planes they have, maybe a 737-900ER. My guess is that PDX will survive and maybe SFO and LAX. LAS might not survive because there’s low yield despite high traffic. I don’t know if there’s high enough yield from IAD, JFK, EWR or ORD. UA could probably make ORD work.

    DL might try to be a spoiler by announcing flights and seeing if AS can get their requested 13 flights cut.

  19. I wonder if Portland flights will have same day of travel change policies and get priority at security as in Sea-Tac? When I lived in Seattle, I frequently sought out PDX connections when not rushed and for leisure travel. Quick check-in and frequent service out of Seattle; tax-free shopping, amazing food, and small crowds in Portland. I could see the same thing maybe working for Paine Field. I was expecting to see Spokane as a destination as well.

  20. I am a local who is looking forward to using this airport. The terminal is built at ground level like Long Beach and Kona so it will be very easy to use each gate to park two planes. I would not be surprised if propeller airports already has the plans drawn up to add 2 or 4 more gates.

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