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After fits and starts due to certification delays that were made worse by the government shutdown, Paine Field (PAE) finally opened for business Monday. The newest commercial airport in the US began operations when Alaska Airlines flight 2777 took off, bound for Las Vegas. Technically it’s a re-opening, in fact, with a brand-new terminal, after the airport closed to commercial traffic during World War II.

Located about 30 miles north of downtown Seattle, the new airport’s stated goal is to return civility to air travel. For people who live north of Seattle, that change starts with not needing to fight traffic to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Paine Field is located on the opposite side of Seattle from Sea-Tac, but initially at least, it won’t offer the breadth of flights that its southern neighbor does.

A maximum of 24 scheduled commercial flights per day will take flight from the airport over the next few months as the two tenants of the new terminal, Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, launch service. These won’t be the only planes taking off from Paine Field, though. Boeing builds most of its twin-aisle jets here, and PAE is where they take off from when they first take flight. The smaller Embraer 175 planes operating the commercial flights will seem quite small compared to the Boeing 747, 767, 777 and 787 aircraft manufactured at the Boeing Everett factory which shares the airfield.

Paine Field shares this interesting mix of commercial flights and airplane assembly lines with a very few airports in the world. Airbus also operates assembly lines at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport (TLS) serving Toulouse, France, and Tianjin Binhai International Airport (TSN) in Tianjin, China.

Aviation geeks are sure to enjoy catching a glimpse of new planes being delivered while waiting for their flight at Paine Field. The new terminal aims to get you from parking to your gate in less than 10 minutes, so you should have plenty of time for plane spotting.

Paine Field first started commercial service in 1939 before being taken over by the military during World War II. Efforts to return the airport to commercial service started in earnest during the 1980s.  Not until 2015 with a new public-private partnership did those begin to become a reality.

Paine Field won’t be a replacement for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport anytime soon, but it will serve a number of hubs that people who live in Northwest Washington can use to connect to flights headed around the world. Alaska Airlines plans service to:

  • Las Vegas (LAS)
  • Los Angeles (LAX)
  • Phoenix (PHX)
  • Portland, Oregon (PDX)
  • San Diego (SAN)
  • San Francisco (SFO)
  • San Jose (SJC)
  • Santa Ana (SNA)

This connects Alaska Airlines well with the San Francisco hub it inherited when it bought Virgin America. It also provides passengers with a nice variety of destinations up and down the West coast. For now, Alaska Airlines flights from Paine Field will be gentle on your pocket, pricing out mostly under $100, capping out just over that amount.

United Airlines plans to launch flights at the end of March, connecting to its hubs in Denver and San Francisco. The destinations out of both hubs give passengers plenty of options.

Initial estimates for passengers per year in the new terminal are in the range of 600,000-700,000.  That assumes pretty strong demand for all of the new flights. Destinations like Orange County or San Jose may struggle to fill their daily departure, and four daily flights to Portland may be a tad too much. However, the flights to bigger destinations like Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco are more likely to be successful. Alaska Airlines has plenty of other dots on the map to try out if some of the initial routes aren’t a success.

A Very Spacious Terminal

From the nostalgic flight board clacking away as it spins up flight choices to the comfortable seating and private lounge feel, Paine Field is a joy to depart from. When the airport is fully operational, local food and beverage choices will complement the relaxing feel of a terminal that’s unlikely to feel very crowded.

On day one, the tiny terminal was overrun with press, politicians and observers along with the passengers. However, on a normal day you’ll find plenty of seating for everyone. With only two gates, serving 75-seat airplanes, the terminal only expects to have as many as 150 passengers at any one time. By my count there were 264 total seats between the couches, lounge chairs, gate seating and bar. The beige lounge seats on the window line were unbelievably comfortable. It won’t be long before a passenger falls asleep in one of those chairs and misses their flight.

Taking Flight From PAE

TPG was on board the Alaska Airlines Embraer 175 bound for Las Vegas that marked the first revenue flight out of the new terminal.

Along with the unveiling of a statue in front of the airport, there were ribbon cuttings and a healthy handful of speeches to go with the local food and beverages. Shortly thereafter, a ceremonial flight to Portland, Oregon, took off with politicians and other supporters of the new airport on board.

Once the ceremonial flight was airborne, the crowd got much smaller. An extremely polite female recorded voice announced the upcoming departure of the flight to Las Vegas, where passengers boarding the flight were headed for a mix of business and pleasure. Benjamin Stolt, an executive who works with a Fortune 100 company in Seattle, was eager to be on the first flight to experience the new airport: “Paine Field is the easiest airport I’ve departed from in a long time. I was through security less than 5 minutes after I parked my car.”

James Hudson, a regional service manager who also was on the inaugural flight, said it normally takes him almost an hour to reach Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The trip to Paine will save him 30 minutes each time he flies out of the airport north of Seattle, which he expects to do five to 10 times per year. “Getting through security was as easy as could be,” he said.

After a water-cannon salute from the onsite fire department — a tradition to mark important occasions in commercial aviation — our Embraer 175 rolled quickly past a row of Boeing 787s awaiting delivery. Another important aspect of traveling from PAE was evident: there were no other aircraft in line to take off. We were airborne quickly, with downtown Seattle visible from the windows, as we were whisked south to Las Vegas, out of the newest commercial airport in the country.

All images by the author.

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