(via The New York Times)
When Paine Field, about 25 miles north of Seattle in Everett, Washington, was born in the 1930s as a New Deal project, it was envisioned as a major commercial airport for the region. But that never happened. Instead, it became known as the place where Boeing offers “North America’s only publicly available commercial jet assembly plant tour.”
That is about to change. Thanks to private investment, Paine Field is finally set to offer air service to the public. A sleek, new, $40 million two-gate terminal was built by Propeller Airports, a Seattle company, and commercial flights are set to begin this month.
Brett Smith, Propeller’s founder and chief executive, expects that travelers will be attracted by the convenience of avoiding traffic jams near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. “No reason why tax dollars should be used to build passenger travel while there’s private-sector money ready and willing to do it,” he said.
As governments reduce spending on infrastructure, private companies are moving into airports big and small, paying for private terminals with new types of services and teaming up with local agencies to renovate existing terminals. The so-called public-private partnerships, or P3s, have created new possibilities for airports, which have struggled for years to find the money to improve terminals and accommodate an increase in passengers and cargo.
An Airport Council International report released in 2017 estimated that airports would need almost $100 billion for capital projects over the next five years but would only be able to finance about half that amount.
The Paine Field Passenger Terminal, which will serve Alaska Airlines starting early this month, and United Airlines later in March, is just one example of how private money is affecting airport offerings.
Through a subsidiary, the Schiphol Group of the Netherlands owns Terminal 4 at Kennedy International Airport; American Airlines owns the airport’s Terminal 8. The Private Suite at Los Angeles International Airport opened nearly two years ago, offering those who can afford it a luxurious respite from the crowds at the main terminals. And Denver International Airport is updating the ticket counters, security screening areas, restaurants and shops at Jeppesen Terminal with the help of private money.
The flow of private money into airports may mean more dining and shopping options for passengers, but it can have downsides. Since private operators try to maximize non-aeronautical revenue, some creature comforts may be lacking.
“We’re not at the level of pay toilets, but operators may make it intentionally difficult to find a water fountain,” said Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel industry analysis firm in San Francisco.
As many as a third of the airports in the United States were privately owned before the Great Depression and the infusion of New Deal spending, according to Deborah Douglas, the curator of science and technology at the M.I.T. Museum, who has studied airports between the world wars.
Wartime needs changed the dynamic.
“The underlying principle of airport operations, beginning with World War II, was that local governments should own and operate the airports, and the federal government should provide the capital for construction and some maintenance costs,” said Peter Kirsch, a partner at the law firm Kaplan, Kirsch and Rockwell who specializes in transportation.