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Dec. 2, 2021

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FedEx close to a deal to operate out of Paine Field as Boeing abandons its 787 Dreamlifter center

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Boeing is close to finalizing a deal to transfer the lease of its Dreamlifter Operations Center at Paine Field in Everett to air cargo carrier FedEx, according to a document reviewed by The Seattle Times that outlines terms of the discussion.

The pending transfer effectively quashes any residual hope that 787 Dreamliner production — now done exclusively in North Charleston, S.C. — might one day restart in Everett.

It also heralds a busier flight schedule out of Paine Field as FedEx cargo flights join the new commercial passenger flights by Alaska and United, as well as Boeing’s delivery and test flights of newly built jets.

The Paine Field transfer is one consequence of Boeing’s decision last October to cease assembly of the 787 in Everett. As a result, since February, the giant, custom-built Dreamlifter cargo planes no longer ferry big sections of the 787 from Boeing’s major partners around the globe to the main Everett factory.

The purpose-built Dreamlifter Operations Center on the west side of the main runway at Paine Field is where Boeing unloaded all the sectionsfor assembly: the 787 wings from Japan, the aft and center fuselage sections from North Charleston, the forward fuselage from Wichita, Kansas, and the horizontal tail from Italy.

Boeing had already moved oversight of Dreamlifter operations and maintenance to South Carolina three years ago.

Neither Boeing nor FedEx would comment on the imminent deal.

“FedEx continuously evaluates opportunities that can enhance our ability to serve our customers,” a spokesperson for the cargo company said via email. “We do not comment on specifics of projects until all aspects have been finalized.”

Boeing simply reiterated last fall’s statement by corporate CFO Greg Smith that the company is “reviewing every piece of real estate, every building, every lease, every warehouse, every site,” with a goal of shrinking the company’s total real estate by 30%.

A $1.8 million sweetener

Boeing leases the Dreamlifter Operations Center building from the airport, which is owned by Snohomish County.

Snohomish County spokesperson Kent Patton said the airport authorities are not involved in negotiations over the Boeing lease. “Paine Field has not been presented with an alternative lease,” Patton wrote in an email.

The lease negotiations document indicates the transfer is expected to be complete this summer, though FedEx has told Boeing it will take time after the lease is transferred to get its cargo flights up and running.

To sweeten the deal, even though FedEx should have taken over the lease by Nov. 1, Boeing has agreed to make a $1.8 million bond payment due on that date as part of the annual rent.

In addition to abandoning the Dreamlifter center, Boeing has already transferred to South Carolina all the tooling for making the smallest Dreamliner model, the 787-8.

A Boeing spokesperson said Monday this was done following the end of local 787 final assembly work in February.

Until then, the North Charleston assembly plant had built only the larger 787-9s and 787-10s.

Boeing insists these are not signs of a slow withdrawal from the community.

“Boeing is committed to the Puget Sound region,” the spokesperson said via email Monday. “We have a larger workforce and operational footprint here than anywhere else in the world, and we have spent billions of dollars investing in long-term infrastructure.”

The fleet of four Dreamlifters — greatly modified versions of the 747-400 — will still be seen at Paine Field, only much less often.

Since December of 2019, Boeing also has been using the odd-looking cargo planes to transport the forward fuselage section of the 767 from Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita to Everett. “That will continue,” said Boeing spokesperson Jessica Kowal.

As part of those three deliveries per month, the sections will now be unloaded at Boeing’s widebody jet delivery center on the east side of the runway.

Will jet noise be worse?

Despite the tremendous convenience of Paine Field flights for travelers living north of Seattle, the start of passenger service there in 2018 drew some opposition over the additional jet noise. But efforts by some residents of Edmonds and Mukilteo to stop the passenger flights failed in court.

A Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson said the agency has not been asked to get involved in any transfer of Boeing’s lease and added that FedEx doesn’t need FAA approval to operate out of Paine Field.

FedEx currently flies its regional air operations out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Sea-Tac spokesperson Perry Copper said the cargo carrier operates an average of seven flights per day in and out of that airport, with fewer on weekends.

And although air cargo operations elsewhere are often flown during the night, Cooper said FedEx schedules its Sea-Tac flights in two slots, in the morning between 5 and 9 a.m. and in the evening between 6 and 9 p.m.

“One or two might be late here and there, but they are not scheduled beyond those times,” he said.

William Gregerson, who has lived all of his 67 years in Mukilteo just south of Paine Field and who wrote an op-ed in The Herald in 2019 opposed to the swelling number of commercial flights out of the airport, said he hopes FedEx will try to limit the increased noise from its flights.

He said he’s been pleased that both Alaska and United start their take-off runs at the north end of the airport and climb quickly, so that they are generally high in the air by the time they pass over Mukilteo.

“They’ve done a pretty good job of alleviating the noise,” he said. “Maybe FedEx, knowing they are flying over populated areas, will do the same.”

Still, Gregerson said, “I accept the reality that it’ll possibly expand.” He said he and his wife have thought about relocating.

“It’s a wonderful place to live, but it might be time to move on,” he said.

His daughter, Jennifer Gregerson, who is mayor of Mukilteo, called the possibility of new Paine Field cargo flights “really unfortunate,” and expressed concern that FedEx might begin nighttime flights.

She said that although the big Dreamlifters are the noisiest planes operating out of Paine Field, people recognize that “they directly represent the aerospace industry and jobs in our community.”

She said substituting FedEx flights doesn’t offer the same trade-off.

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