Port concerned about space taken up by Boeing 737s

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Charles H. Featherstone/Columbia Basin Herald 737 MAX aircraft parked at the Grant County International Airport. Port of Moses Lake Commissioners are concerned that the sheer number of parked 737s could affect or limit airport operations.

MOSES LAKE — Commissioners overseeing the Port of Moses Lake have become concerned about the amount of space Boeing appears ready to fill at the Grant County International Airport with grounded 737 MAX airplanes.

“I’m surprised by how big a footprint they have,” said Commissioner David “Kent” Jones during a study session prior to Monday’s regular meeting. “This looks like a Boeing facility.”

Jones and other commissioners were concerned that all the parked 737s would impinge upon other airport operations, particularly charter flights and military training.

“We can’t keep leasing the airport to them,” added Commission President Darrin Jackson. “We don’t have an airport, we have a parking lot.”

The Everett-based airplane manufacturer currently has over 130 737 MAX airplanes in Moses Lake. The planes were grounded after two crashes — one in late 2018 and the second earlier this year — were attributed to a software problem. Boeing is currently working to solve the problem, which must also be approved by U.S. and international regulators.

Boeing began parking 737s at the Grant County International Airport in July, and has exercised options on nearly 60 acres of “The Ramp,” the area behind the terminal, beginning on Oct. 1. The leases are all for one year, with an option to renew for another six months.

Boeing pays a little less than $1,000 per acre per month to lease parking space from the Port of Moses Lake or some of its other tenants, according to data from the Port.

While agreeing with their concerns, Airport Director Rich Mueller reminded commissioners they have already signed leases and that Boeing has been an essential participant in the Port since it was created in the mid-1960s.

“Boeing has been instrumental in forming the Port, and we appreciate that, and they use our facilities, and we appreciate that too,” Mueller said.

Mueller said that while leases have already been signed, Boeing has agreed to give up the “wash rack” — a one-acre T-shaped slab of concrete where the Air Force used to clean planes — to another tenant that wanted to use the area for engine tests.

Of greatest concern to commissioners was roughly four acres directly behind the main terminal where private and military aircraft park. Most affected would be Millionair, which provides services to pilots and aircraft that fly into and out of GCIA, including a number of musicians who perform at The Gorge.

“We get 30-50 (planes) per month, depending on the season,” said Larry Godden, general manager of Millionair’s Moses Lake operation.

The lack of space would also halt air cargo shipments like last year’s chilled cherry exports to Asia and impinge upon the operations of the U.S. Customs Service at the GCIA, which checks about three flights per week, according to Interim Executive Director Kim DeTrolio.

But also apparently affected would be Boeing’s 777X testing program, which plans to use GCIA for test flights. According to Mueller, Boeing’s 737 MAX lease behind the terminal leaves no place for Boeing to park its 777X between test flights.

However, Mueller reminded commissioners that none of this was rushed into.

“We checked it out all the way,” he said. “This was not willy-nilly. We can go back to Boeing and tell them of the deleterious effects on airport operations.”

According to Frank Chmelik, an attorney representing the port, because the leases have already been signed, the port’s options are limited, though the port does have options.

“We have some strategies to get (the acreage) back,” Chmelik said without disclosing any details.

While Boeing is an important tenant and client, commissioners believed the port needs to consider and protect the interests of other port tenants like Millionair, aircraft testing firm AeroTEC and high-end jet customizer Greenpoint Technologies.

“We have to have space in front of our own terminal building,” Jackson said. “(Boeing was) at capacity overnight, and no one expected that.”

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.

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