Why the New Paine Field Airport Is a Passenger's Dream
In the 1930s, Snohomish County Airport was built with the idea it would become one of the biggest in the nation. Then World War II happened, the airport was taken over by the armed forces, and commercial flights ended -- only to return this week, seven decades later, with Paine Field's reopening to scheduled traffic as the "other" Seattle airport.
The newly-built passenger terminal, which opened on Monday at Paine Field, is intended to serve as an alternative for people living north of downtown Seattle. Residents in Snohomish County and surrounding areas, prior to the this week, had no other option but to drive nearly 40 miles south to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Now, Snohomish County residents can reach an airport in a matter of minutes.
After seeing the airport on its first day of operations -- TPG was also on the first flight out of the airport on Monday and went for a preview last year -- we can say that they will want to: PAE is a beauty, and it feels very much unlike the usual crowded, drab experience at many other airports.
The majority of passengers departing on the first day of operations were aviation enthusiasts and members of the media, but among the few who were there to actually travel, the prevalent opinion was very positive.
A group of three passengers on the first flight to Las Vegas, who gave their names as Tara, Chris and Andrew, were enthusiastic.
"It's really close to me, and to see this dream come true is just going to be a big plus for the community," Chris said.
"Stunning," Tarah said of of the new terminal's architecture.
"Beautiful!" all three said, almost in unison, of the terminal's open and modern feel.
Another passenger, who said his name was Teddy and that he lived in Everett -- the city where the airport is actually located -- usually flies out of Sea-Tac, but preferred his experience with the new terminal in part because it's just 10 minutes from his apartment. With 800,000 people in Snohomish County and big employer Boeing right at the airport -- where most of the company's twin-aisle planes are built -- there clearly seems to be demand for flights at PAE.
So far, only Alaska is flying out of the airport; United will follow later this month. Alaska serves Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego and Portland, Oregon, and will add soon Orange County, San Francisco and San Jose. United will fly to Denver and San Francisco beginning on March 31. Both are using 76-seat regional jets on those routes, ensuring that PAE will never be too crowded.
Light, Air and Wood Panels
The first thing I noticed upon arriving at the new Paine Field terminal was just how small it was but also how luxurious it looked -- unlike many contemporary steel-and-glass structures.
The parking lot, which was quite empty when I arrived, features an electric vehicle charging station.
The terminal has just two points of entry -- one door for departures and one for arrivals. On the side of the terminal, a third door connects to a smaller facility used for ground transportation. Next to the departures door is a car valet stand.
The ticketing area is a perfect indicator of what passengers can expect at Paine Field. With the same wood paneling and accents used throughout the terminal and large windows letting a great deal of natural light, it's welcoming and beautiful.
There are just three positions for ticketing --currently all occupied by Alaska Airlines pending United's arrival -- plus six kiosks that can be used to buy tickets on either airline. (If that does not sound like many, consider that most people buy tickets online these days.)
Eventually there will be an on-site concierge in this hall to help passengers along.
The focal point of the terminal is a massive departures board.
PAE may be small, but unlike many other airports its size, it has a dedicated TSAPreCheck lane. With passengers still scarce two hours before my flight, I breezed through.
Not a Lounge, But Feels Like One
While many frequent flyers are used to long walks down sterile terminals that seem to never end, this is far from the case at Paine Field.
The departures area felt like a business-class lounge that a European airline like Swiss or Lufthansa would operate at one of their hubs. The center atrium that separates the two gate areas has ample seating, including leather lounge chairs, couches, and traditional bar seating, plus restaurant-style seating. Almost every single seat in the departures area has one or more power outlets.
The departures area also features two stone gas fireplaces, two display cases with historical memorabilia and a massive bar.
Since it was the first day of operations, the concessions operator, Seattle-based Beecher's Handmade Cheese, was offering passengers complimentary brunch including muffins, scones, and egg and cheese sandwiches -- the same offerings that will be for sale regularly. Everything was fresh and flavorful. Only the bar was open, as Beecher's Handmade Cheese's next two concessions are still under construction. (The post-security cafe should open by the end of the month.)
In addition to the center departures area, there are two traditional gate areas, each with plenty of seating. Alaska Airlines exclusively operates the Embraer E-175 out of PAE, as will United, meaning that each flight will have no more than 76 passengers. There's more than enough seating for that capacity, with a little room to grow.
Though it was still early in the day, the bar attracted quite a few enthusiastic passengers who wanted to try out the signature drinks and cocktails. Others chose to relax fireside or get some work done. The airy space, plentiful light and comfortable seating helped set a palpably good mood.
My flight to Phoenix was the last one of the day, and the terminal had quieted down substantially by boarding time.
The flight boarded a few minutes late, but with so little traffic at the airport -- only some private flights and the first and test flights of new Boeing planes share the runway -- we still departed on time.
In keeping with the terminal's aesthetic, the two jetways feel open and airy. They offer boarding and arriving passengers stunning views of the nearby mountains.
Onboard the final departing flight of the first day of operations, the crew members were in an upbeat, almost celebratory mood. Each passenger received some items to commemorate the flight, and the plane even got a water-cannon salute from the fire department, just like the previous two flights. (Don't expect that on a regular day -- they're reserved for big events and, on occasion, the last flight of a retiring captain.)
During the flight I overheard a fellow passenger tell a flight attendant that the new terminal was amazing, and that he lived "up north" -- another perfect example of the customers that PAE wants to go after. (The airport might have to work a bit on name recognition, though: The flight attendant replied that she wasn't sure what Paine Field was until she landed there on the plane's ferry flight from Seattle the night before.)
Overall, Paine Field is unlike any other airport that I've come across in North America. The space feels premium, with passenger-centric amenities, and its small size works in its favor. I would gladly fly through there again and again.
All images by Max Prosperi/The Points Guy