With Sea-Tac nearly maxed out, where to land a new airport?

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Paine Field is certain to be studied by a state commission looking for a “relief valve” or replacement.

OLYMPIA — One day in the not-too-distant future, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport will be maxed-out for passengers and cargo.

But the number of planes bound for Puget Sound will continue to rise. Where will they land?

It’s the question the new Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission will spend the next two years trying to answer. It is tasked with siting a new primary airport and developing a timeline to get it built by 2040.

They don’t have to settle on a site for one large new airport. They could, under the law that created the panel, recommend expanding operations at an existing airport or developing one or more smaller satellite airports.

Those options make it hard to imagine Paine Field in Everett won’t get a hard look, but there is not yet a list of candidate locations. Commissioners met for the first time Thursday. Over four hours, they mapped a plan to reach their difficult destination on time.

They are supposed to come up with six potential sites by the end of next year, pare the list to two by the fall of 2021 and issue a final recommendation and construction timeline by Jan. 1, 2022.

“It’s a tough thing to plan for 20 years out,” said state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, sponsor of the law that created the commission. Her district includes the city of SeaTac and Sea-Tac Airport. “We cannot sit on our hands. We are out of space now. We need a relief valve.”

State Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, a professional pilot, helped write the legislation. During the inaugural meeting, he acknowledged it’s going to be a bumpy flight and asked members to be open to all possibilities.

The panel has 15 voting members, of which four represent commercial airports. There are two citizens as well as representatives of the airline industry, the trucking and freight industry, an environmental organization and the state departments of Commerce and Transportation. There also are 12 non-voting members, including four state lawmakers.

Arif Ghouse, airport director at Snohomish County-owned Paine Field, is a member. During a break in the meeting, he said this is a very important decision for the state and should not be rushed.

“I am not entering into this with any preconceived ideas,” he said. “We have to let the process lead to the conclusions.”

Pressure to open a new airport or expand an existing one is due to soaring demand for passenger air service and air cargo in the Puget Sound region.

Passenger enplanements — the number of people departing on scheduled flights — is expected to more than double, from 24 million in 2018 to more than 50 million in 2050, according to an ongoing analysis known as the Regional Aviation Baseline Study.

In the Puget Sound region there are 29 airports in all. Sea-Tac is the largest. Of 11 smaller airports, two have scheduled passenger service: Paine Field, which launched commercial flights March 4, and Boeing Field in Seattle, which started commercial service in June.

Expansion at Paine may be desired — as the president of Alaska Airlines wished aloud recently — but it’s not immediately doable. Passenger service at the new two-gate terminal is capped by the Federal Aviation Administration at 24 daily departures and 24 arrivals. Trying to lift the cap even a little would trigger a review by regulators and almost certainly start a fight with neighbors.

Nonetheless, it’s been one of the airports eyed in past studies as a possible relief valve.

Other airports considered in the past as candidates for passenger service include Arlington Municipal Airport, Bremerton National Airport and McChord Field south of Tacoma, which belongs to the U.S. Air Force and is part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Analysts also have looked at the possibility of building a new primary airport in Pierce County and rural Thurston County.

According to the enabling law, commissioners may not suggest siting a new airport on or in the vicinity of a military installation if doing so would hamper that facility’s ability to carry out its mission, so McChord and its vicinity might not be a good option.

Commissioners said the public should be engaged early in the process. Any proposed new airport will require approval by the FAA. And it will need to be sponsored by the community in which it lies.

When an initial six possible sites are identified, commissioners said, they want to be sure there is buy-in from those communities, or the process won’t succeed.

The panel’s first meeting ended with a couple of members suggesting they could immediately nix the idea of opening a new airport east of the Cascades to serve as a backup for Sea-Tac.

“We have a Puget Sound issue here,” said Warren Hendrickson, manager of the Bremerton airport and vice chairman of the commission. “I don’t see one of our six sites landing on the east side of the mountains.”

David Fleckenstein, the commission chairman and director of aviation for the state Department of Transportation, initially agreed. “I see it the way Warren does,” he said.

But commissioners Steve Edmiston of Des Moines and Ghouse of Paine Field cautioned against drawing conclusions too quickly.

“I respectfully request we hold off” from such a decision for at least one meeting, Edmiston said.

Afterward, Keiser said she was glad they did.

“We don’t want to cut off half the state in the first meeting,” she said.

The panel’s next meeting is scheduled for late January.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.