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 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 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.