Improving name recognition sets stage for growth.
By Ellen Hiatt
Paine Field is no longer just Paine Field. And that’s something Brett Smith with Propeller Airports is happy about, even expecting it to solve one of his most vexing problems at the commercial passenger terminals.
This past summer, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers announced a rebranding of the entire facility to Seattle Paine Field International Airport.
“If you look out my window, you are going to see two Iraqi airways planes, Quantas, El Al, Turkish Airlines. And Kenmore flies to Canada,” he said
Paine Field is, in fact, an International airport. In the five years since he first opened the passenger terminal in a public-private partnership with the County, the terminal’s name recognition has declined.
“Now that we are kind of restarting, it’s important people know where we are. I have been surprised at the amount of people who live in King County, who don’t really know where this airport is.
”The price to fly is competitive, he said, compared to flying from SeaTac, and even a time and money saver when you account for dealing with traffic and parking.
“Having Seattle in the name makes a massive difference to pilots and visitors. Let’s be honest, not everybody knows where Everett is,” he added.
“My job is to get more flights to more destinations,”he said. And he’s on track for that. The Seattle Paine Field Passenger Terminal now serves Anchorage, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orange County, Phoenix, San Diego and San Francisco, with seasonal service to Tucson and Palm Springs. Honolulu service begins Nov. 17, 2023.
Smith started Snohomish County Airport Paine Field – now Seattle Paine Field – with a vision just five years ago. That vision, delayed by a pandemic, is still on track to bring robust commercial passenger service to Snohomish County. There is always something to be done to meet that goal.
The terminal’s original lack of name recognition, the regional limitations in mass transportation, the lack of a U.S. Customs office on site, a market irrevocably altered by a massive cultural shift brought on by a pandemic. The challenges are daunting.
On this day in August, while Smith was distracted from helping with wedding planning, he jumped from one idea to the next, one frustration to the next recognition of accomplishment achieved.
“The wedding is more stressful than building an airport,” he acknowledged as his computer screen distracted him with a centerpiece option. “I do care!”
It makes sense he would be concerned with choosing the perfect centerpiece for his own wedding. This is a man who picked up flowers every Monday morning to have fresh bouquets in the cosmopolitan airport terminal he designed and stewarded from the ground up. Smith leaves no detail unattended.
The awards on Brett Smith’s window shelf tell the story, as much as the eclectic artwork on the walls, the piles of paper on his desk, and the Brillo-branded sticky note pad holding up his keyboard, next to a small stack of wedding invitations.
A gifted, framed print of a dollar bill with the signature of President Harry Truman (“the buck stops here”) is near a bold and modern print that merely says “How Much?” Smith picked the latter up in a gift shop at the beginning of creating the Paine Field passenger terminal. It was a question he knew he’d ask himself frequently. But it was a task he believes the private sector could take on with more success than the public sector alone.
Government owned terminals are primarily an American phenomenon, he said. In Europe, most are private, he said, ticking off a list: Heathrow, Gatwick, Edinburg, Sydney, Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt. “All privatized. But very uncommon here.”
The awards on the window shelf overlooking the Quantas and Turkish Airlines planes on the tarmac included Monacle’s Travel Top 50 Award for “World’s Best Regional Airport,” and a USA.
Today’s Reader’s Choice Award for being one of the 10 best small airports in the country. There are more, but the award he is is particularly pleased with is from the Washington Pilots Association.
“I think it’s important that the general aviation community realized we weren’t all that bad,” said Smith, a pilot himself. “They were concerned that what we were doing for aviation would interfere with what they wanted to do.”
The passenger terminal, he said, supports the many other operations at the airport, he said.
Because, as a private operation, Propeller Airports pays Snohomish County a fee for its operation at the location. The County, without that private partnership, could not invest terminal- generated resources into other county needs off-site of Paine Field.
“It was important to me to see that the private sector could do it, just as good, if not better – but also in partnership,” said Smith.
Recent master planning for the location revealed many demands for the location, according to Joshua Marcy, Paine Field’s director, in Puget Sound Business Journal. There are a lot of needs for the space from commercial tenants and corporate aviation, flight schools, hobbyists, manufacturing and more.
Among the more exciting developments, Snohomish County is working jointly with Washington State University on a new, sustainable aviation fuel research and development facility, billed by the county as the world’s first sustainable aviation fuel repository. The goal is to collect, sample and distribute sustainable fuels.
The changes that a pandemic brought to passenger service were, perhaps, the one thing Smith said he could not have predicted in his lifetime. Not only did it dramatically alter the patterns of travelers (business travelers do a lot more by Zoom than by traveling for a face-to-face meeting now). But also, a pilot shortage was predicted for a few years out from now, as pilots reached retirement age.
“The majority of pre-Covid was business travel. Now it’s all leisure. Tuesday and Wednesday are the slowest days,” he said. “The fundamental change is business travel.”
“People think the effects of Covid are over and they are not.” he said, noting the many pilots who took an early retirement in the pandemic. “Those guys are gone now. This was a problem everyone in the industry knew was coming. It was predicted by 2030 we would have these pilot shortages. Covid made it an immediate problem.”
Smith is also frustrated with the region’s mass transportation options, especially in comparison to Europe’s mass transit system. He doesn’t have answers for it all. But he continues to work through the challenges. The terminal’s name change to include Seattle for name recognition, and the revitalization of leisure travel, are going to make a tremendous difference. Next up, he said, is to get a Customs operation on site.
As he fielded a call from an advertisement producer to inquire if they could film an ad for a car company (probably not, he said), he offered praise for County Executive Somers’ decision to change the name of the airport, and the relationship they’ve created in partnership.
He believes the FAA needs to lower the number of hours of flight time required for a pilot to serve as first officer. It’s currently 1,500 hours – three times what pilots are required to achieve in Europe. “I have been flying for 17 years and I am just under 2,000 hours. And I fly a lot.”
“The smaller regional airports have gotten crushed during Covid. Seventy-one percent of airports lost a minimum of 30% of their traffic. We are so close to Seattle so it’s not as bad. Places like Yakima are down to one flight a day.”
“One of the things I am most proud of is our relationship with the government. When the government understands the importance and they are forward thinkers, like Dave Somers, we get a lot done. The relationship with the County is truly like a marriage – it has to work for both parties.” And it’s working, Smith said, adding he believes it to be a tremendous asset to the community now and in the future.
“It’s always been important for me to give back doing a project like this in an industry I love. I am giving back in a way that’s greater than myself. This is going to be here long after I’m gone, creating value for our community.”