Brett Smith – Takes on a one-of-a-kind challenge and an opportunity to do something few have done…
The tall man in the slacks and jacket moves through the big room. He straightens chairs. He sweeps crumbs off a table, and picks up a napkin and paper plate somebody left behind. He straightens an arrangement of fresh flowers on a table.
Most of the people in the big room ignore him. They’re sitting in comfortable lounge chairs, or perched at a nearby bar. They’re staring at their phones, chatting with each other or picking up a meal of Beecher’s macaroni and cheese. A few children quietly play with small toys. At the bar, a man reads a book while he noshes on a board of prosciutto with artisan cheese and a demi-baguette. James Taylor croons ‘70s soft-rock over the sound system. A lady takes a selfie.
In short, it’s not your typical scene in an airport lounge about 15 minutes before boarding.
Propeller Airports CEO Brett Smith says he’s hands-on with his management of the Paine Field air terminal for a reason. “It’s like somebody’s coming to your house for dinner or drinks,”
he said. “You want it to present well.”
Only in his case, he had about 300,000 drop by during the first three months his living room was open.
That was the number of people who arrived or departed on flights from Paine in the first five months after it opened on March 4.
“Those are 300,000 people who have been saved the drive down the I-5 corridor to Sea-Tac airport,” noted Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers.
I love aviation.
I wanted my career to be focused on something I enjoyed…
Paine Field was built in 1936 as part of a Depression-era plan to create jobs and stimulate commerce. It was one of dozens of airfields nationwide built during those years, including Chicago Midway, Honolulu International and New York City’s LaGuardia.
It was named after Topliff Paine, an Everett High School graduate who went on to serve as a lieutenant flying in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War I, and then was a pilot in the early years of the U.S. Post Office’s Air Mail Service. Travelers through the terminal today might spot a life-size statue of Lieutenant Paine on the sidewalk outside.
Commercial air service began at the airport in 1939, but within a few years, the United States had entered World War II, and Paine Field was taken over by the Army Air Corps. After the war ended, the military returned Paine Field to Snohomish County for commercial use – only to take it back during the Korean War, when it served as a U.S. Air Force base.
In 1966, the Boeing Co. announced Paine Field would be the site of its massive new 747 manufacturing complex, which has grown into what is literally the world’s largest building (by volume), along the northeast edge of the airport.
In the 1990s, Snohomish County officials began exploring options for restarting the long-absent commercial air service. Proponents pointed out that it often was faster to drive from Snohomish County to destinations like Portland and Spokane than it was to fight traffic down Interstate 5 to Sea-Tac, look for parking, wait in ticketing, security and boarding lines and then – after a brief flight – collect one’s bags and find ground transport to a final destination.
But strong opposition emerged from those who feared that commercial air service would bring noise and traffic congestion to south Snohomish County.
Into the debate stepped Smith and county Executive Dave Somers with a proposal for a first-of-its-kind-in- America public-private partnership.
The political aspect of getting the deal through the County Council was challenging, Smith said. “I didn’t have any gray hairs before this.”
But it was a one-of-a-kind challenge and an opportunity to do something few have done. “It’s one of the only terminals built in recent memory from scratch,” Smith said. “And to get to do it here is a lot different from anywhere else.”
Photo: Ryan Warner
Bronze sculpture of Lieutenant Topliff Olin Paine and Brett Smith
A native New Yorker, Smith has long had a passion for all things that fly. Shortly after graduating from Emory University, he took a job on Wall Street that involved working on the first New York Stock Exchange index for airline stocks.
“I love aviation. I wanted my career to be focused on something I enjoyed,” he said. “But I didn’t want to work for the airlines – too political.”
Instead, he held other jobs in finance, and launched and sold a software company. Eventually he landed in London, where he worked on an airline restructuring deal. That’s where he was introduced to the idea of privately funded airport services.
Propeller Airport’s is unique in America, in that it’s the only private company that has partnered with a local government to build and run a terminal at a publicly owned airport.
But in Europe, the concept is common. Several major European airports – including London’s Heathrow and Parisi’s Charles de Gaulle — are privately owned and operated.
“It all started with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s,” he said. “She didn’t want to use public funds on something the private sector could do.”
With the European model in mind, Smith started thinking about bringing private-sector funding and management expertise to the U.S. airport industry, and the benefits it could provide.
“You get a better product,” he said. “It’s more efficient, and you can use taxpayer dollars for more critical functions.”
Photo: Ryan Warner
Handpicked Floral Arrangements
Smith’s Propeller Investments was involved with an effort to bring commercial air service to suburban Atlanta – a move being fought by Delta Air Lines – when a 2013 Wall Street Journal story on the Atlanta controversy caught the attention of Snohomish County officials, who’d long kept alive hopes that adding direct air service to Paine Field would improve the quality of life for county residents – and boost business prospects.
“They cold-called me,” Smith recalled. “I normally don’t take those, but I did. And when I saw this place… to get to do it here is a lot different from anywhere else.”
Political pushback and regulatory requirements were challenging, Smith said, but “getting the airlines on board? Not so much. It was needed.”
When at last they had local approval and a deal with the Federal Aviation Administration to operate flights from Paine Field, Smith and his investors sold $50 million in bonds to finance the project. Smith said he picked industry leading architects and designers, and local builders for their project, and he’s glad he did.
“The quality of the work was better,” he said. “They knew that their grandparents or kids were going to use (the terminal).”
Smith said designers studied lighting and colors and sound, with the goal of creating something of a bed and breakfast experience: “Extremely comfortable service and an environment where people don’t feel stressed.”
Smith himself decided to relocate cross-country so he could see for himself how his investment was performing. He’s loaded bags with the ground crew, and driven home passengers who have waited too long for taxis or ride-share drivers to show up.
“I need to understand what works and what doesn’t work with every aspect of the operation,” Smith said. “You can’t do that from a desk in New York.”
There was one big stumbling block near the end of the project – the federal government shutdown in the winter of 2018-19 delayed the start of flights. With much of the FAA closed and its personnel furloughed at home, Alaska decided it would move its first flights from February to March.
Smith said Propeller Airports’ vision – his vision – for the terminal was something that would “be unique, and not airport-esque.”
It appears he’s succeeded: Monocle magazine – which bills itself as a “global affairs and lifestyle magazine” – dubbed Paine Field the best regional airport in the world in May. Another group – the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships – also gave Propeller and Snohomish County an award for innovation.
Photo: Ryan Warner
Brett Smith Plane Boarding
Monocle magazine – which bills itself as a “global affairs and lifestyle magazine” – dubbed Paine Field the best regional airport in the world in May
Somers said Snohomish County is happy with the partnership with Propeller.
“We have the most beautiful, award-winning terminal in America, and it was built entirely with private funds,” he said. “I believe strongly in leveraging our partnership with the private sector. We can focus on what we do best – like running the airport. And our private partners can focus on what they do best – building and operating the terminal.”
Perhaps more important is the response from the airlines and the flying public.
“We opened full,” said Smith, meaning that Alaska and United airlines filled up every available take-off and landing slot as soon as they became available. The airlines are happy.
“The start of service has been very good,” said Ray Lane, who is Alaska Airline’s operational communications manager. His airline is making changes to its Paine Field routes this fall, adding Palm Springs and Spokane as destinations while cutting back on flights to Los Angeles. The changes are due to customer demand, Lane said.
About 70 percent of the people passing through the terminal are business travelers, Smith said. Many are aerospace industry professionals doing business with Boeing or one of the 200 companies that provide goods and services to it, but tech industry travelers also are happy to take advantage of Paine’s convenience, its shorter lines and superior service.
“Business flyers rave about it,” said Matt Smith, who heads aerospace industry development for the Economic Alliance of Snohomish County. “The proximity and no wasted time in the terminal.”
Smith says Paine Field, which only has three gates – two of them featuring clearglass jetways that provide striking views of the Olympic Mountains and Boeing’s flightline — offers convenience that larger airports just can’t match.
Both Alaska and United Airline are serving Paine Field with 76-seat Embraer 175s, smaller planes that can board and unload passengers and baggage faster than the bigger jets that fly into Sea-Tac. On arrival, “You can walk to baggage claim in two minutes,” Smith said. “We guarantee that our bags start coming out in five minutes.” And on departure, there are rarely more than a dozen people standing in the security line, an airport staffer said.
“Being an airport of this size gives us quickness and efficiencies you just can’t get at Sea-Tac,” Smith said.
“Sea-Tac actually does a good job doing what it does,” he said. “But it’s got inherent problems: big planes dumping hundreds of passengers at a time, satellite terminals scattered nearly a mile from the main baggage claim and thousands of passengers who have to pass through a few security checkpoints.”
“Sea-Tac was never designed to handle what it’s handling, and I give them a lot of credit.” Smith said.
Paine Field may not be the only public private air terminal in America forever. The New York Times reported in spring 2019 that government agencies that run airports in both New York and Los Angeles had partnered with private investors to build new terminals or departure lounges.
There are big benefits to that kind of arrangement, Smith said. When a public agency runs an airport, public employees are paid a straight salary to do their jobs. But when a private company runs it, managers can award bonuses to top performers and quickly invest in new ideas to improve service or revenue.
Photo: Ryan Warner
Brett Smith Plane Boarding
“We run it efficiently. As a business, we’re consistently looking at what passengers want,” Smith said. “We focus on providing services that people want and will pay for.”
For his part, Smith said Propeller is carefully screening opportunities at other airports, but it’s not on the front burner. “My time is really spent right now optimizing the (Paine Field) operation.”
And he admits to being a bit obsessive about it. He himself drives to a floral wholesaler every Monday morning to pick out and purchase the fresh flowers that decorate the departure lounge. He spends a lot of time in the building, chatting with passengers about their experience.
“It’s always kind of fun to see their reaction after they ask me what I do at the airport,” Smith chuckled.
Getting this particular project off the ground was challenging, Smith said. “It was hugely risky. We could have lost the boat if there had been massive delays.”
But the result has left him – and many Snohomish County travelers – satisfied.
“We’ve created jobs and convenience,” he said, “and left something that’s going to benefit generations to come.” ✦