Visiting Boeing Field is like stepping back into a bygone, more innocent era. You pull into the leafy little parking lot and easily find...

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Visiting Boeing Field is like stepping back into a bygone, more innocent era.

You pull into the leafy little parking lot and easily find a shady spot. It’s free.

You enter the two-story brick terminal building through a soaring archway that dates to 1930.

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Security is low-key. No baggage scanners or shoe removal for people boarding the corporate jets from, Costco, Nordstrom, Starbucks and Microsoft.

Airport director Bob Burke doesn’t even lock his car.

All of this could change if Southwest Airlines moves to King County-owned Boeing Field from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The low-cost carrier is expected to formally propose such a move today following a year of talks. It is considering leaving Sea-Tac, where a $4.2 billion expansion program is causing operating costs to climb.

But perhaps the changes at Boeing Field won’t be so drastic. Formally known as King County International Airport, the field already appears to have most of the facilities it might need to host Southwest, the nation’s sixth-largest carrier.

An arrivals terminal, completed in 1978, is rundown but spacious. There are seven gates, mostly not in use. A leaky roof has soaked many of the ceiling tiles and left them scattered around the floor. But there is a baggage belt, and space for customs and immigration.

Burke says the old terminal could be refurbished pretty quickly to get service started. It also could be torn down and rebuilt.

“I gotta assume Southwest’s approach is to keep it simple,” Burke said. “Get people on and off airplanes and married up with their baggage and on their way as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Other facilities would be needed: baggage screening, a rental-car counter, a taxi stand. And probably a bigger parking garage that could mean the end of that free parking.

Some King County council members say the county won’t pay to develop facilities for Southwest. Councilman Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, introduced legislation Tuesday “intended to set some ground rules” about Southwest’s potential move.

But that hardly seems an obstacle. Most of the investment at Boeing Field is already made by private businesses in exchange for long-term ground leases, typically 25 or 35 years.

One developer, for example, paid to build hangars that house jets used by business executives. The county still owns the land.

Lots of land

If the existing terminal isn’t right for Southwest, other land on the 614-acre field might be.

Along the west edge, north of the Museum of Flight, sits a large and vacant airline office building that could be torn down and rebuilt, Burke said. Several nearby vacant lots, one leased to Boeing, also aren’t being used.

Don’t underestimate Boeing Field because of its modest size, Burke said. “LaGuardia [in New York] is only 800 acres.”

Burke should know. A pilot and former Marine, he has managed airports in such far-flung places as Albany, N.Y., and Buenos Aires, Argentina. During nine years working for Airport Group International, he was involved in managing and privatizing a variety of airports.

He was working at the airport in Doha, Qatar, in 2002, during the buildup for the Iraq war. He took the job at Boeing Field just after the war started in March 2003.

From his office on the second floor, you can peek through Venetian blinds and see jets — big ones — just outside, and the runway beyond.

Air Force One parks out there during presidential visits. When it does, Burke has to keep the blinds down, for security reasons.

“They caught me peeking once,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

Since arriving, Burke has been busy reconfiguring Boeing Field to make it more profitable and more useful to the region.

The airport has an average of 819 takeoffs and landings daily, and about 46,000 passengers went through last year on charter flights and small scheduled airlines such as Kenmore Air Express.

By contrast, Sea-Tac saw almost 29 million passengers last year, more than its planned capacity.

There’s plenty of room to grow the passenger traffic at Boeing Field, said Burke.

The 10,000-foot main runway can accommodate big Boeing jets and is attracting a growing number of corporate jets, as well as some unusual customers.

Paul Allen keeps an unarmed F-5 fighter jet and other planes from his collection here in a hangar that’s bigger than the county’s terminal building.

“Every piece of land we have, we’re looking at how to make it revenue-producing,” Burke said. “When you have 35-year leases coming due, you’ve got to do it right,” he said.

Not asking taxpayers

Development could be undertaken either by the airport itself, using revenue bonds that would be paid back by user fees, not taxpayers, or by granting land under long-term leases to operators or developers, who would build the facilities themselves.

Burke wants to open up space to park more planes by repositioning hangars, and to bring vacant land into use by creating more hangar space and tie-downs for small private planes.

Groups representing nearby residents are opposed to the idea of Southwest relocating to Boeing Field. So are other airlines and officials at Sea-Tac.

Stable profits

But for Burke, the goal is to earn consistent profits for the airport, which lost money in 2003 and is expected to be in the red this year.

Southwest would have room, Burke said. But if other airlines wanted to follow its lead and move to Boeing Field, there might be a crunch.

“There’s a finite amount of room,” Burke said.

“This is never going to be a Sea-Tac. We don’t want it to be.”

Alwyn Scott: 206-464-3329 or