(Courthouse News) - The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't need an environmental impact statement to start operating commercial flights at Paine Field near Everett, Washington, the Ninth Circuit ruled Friday.
Neighboring cities Mukilteo and Edmonds challenged the FAA's green light for commercial passenger flights, claiming an environmental impact statement was needed.
Paine Field, about 30 miles north of Seattle, was built in 1936 but never became the commercial passenger hub once envisioned.
In 2012, Snohomish County, which runs the airport, gave permission to build a small, two-gate terminal. Alaska Airlines, through its subsidiary Horizon Air, and Allegiant Airlines were interested in providing passenger service if infrastructure existed, according to the ruling.
Mukilteo and Edmonds appealed the FAA's decision that no environmental impact statement was necessary, claiming the agency failed to include connected factors and predetermined the outcome before the review.
The Ninth Circuit heard arguments in 2014, but all parties requested a stay in the action because the county could not fund the $3 million for construction and it appeared development was unlikely.
The court requested interim status reports every six months and restarted proceedings in 2015 because construction seemed imminent.
On Friday, the three-judge panel ruled the FAA's decision to allow limited passenger flights without a full environmental impact statement was acceptable, and rejected the cities' argument that the FAA predetermined the outcome.
The cities said the FAA made statements favoring passenger service to Paine Field and gave a schedule to a consulting firm before the environmental assessment was completed.
"In short, the FAA's finding of no significant impact was not predetermined by the creation of an optimistic schedule for completing the environmental review or statements favoring commercial service at Paine Field. The FAA performed its National Environmental Policy Act obligations in good faith and did not prematurely commit resources to opening the terminal. The petitioners' bias arguments fail," Circuit Judge Richard Tallman wrote for the majority.
The FAA is not prohibited from favoring commercial service, but only required to conduct an environmental review "objectively and in good faith," according to the ruling.
Opponents also objected to the development based on the airport's "maximum capacity," the ruling said.
"Here, the FAA based its flight operation projections on demand and determined that the only additional, and reasonably foreseeable, flights were those initially proposed by two airlines, amounting to approximately 22 operations per day. Those airlines proposed to employ smaller aircraft with a capacity of up to 150 passengers. In contrast, the projections touted by petitioners were based solely on the airport's maximum capacity and do not take into account actual historical demand," Tallman wrote.
In comparison, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to the south handles an average of 946 aircraft operations per day, 89 percent of them commercial flights, and served over 42 million passengers in 2015.
The court said its decision would not "open the floodgates" to all passenger airlines that request access to Paine Field because carriers must still get permission, which could be challenged by opponents.
Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson told the Everett Herald the city disagrees with the ruling.
"We disagree with the ruling, and believe that there are legal errors in its findings. We are considering our options," Gregerson said. "We still believe that commercial air service is not the right use at the airport and are committed to protecting the quality of life of our community."
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