There are many ways to measure the economy. Economic forecasters often look to standards such as the stock market and real estate. Unemployment rates are key, as is the percentage of income that residents save rather than spend.
But what about looking to the sky? What can the sky tell us about a region’s economy?
One often overlooked indicator is the general aviation industry.
On average, 100 airplanes take off and land at Bellingham International Airport each day. However, only 10 of those are commercial flights. The remaining 90 or so aircraft constitute what is known as general aviation: airplanes used for business travel, personal pleasure, and government purposes — everything other than cargo and commercial aviation.
“General aviation is kind of an unsung hero,” said Art Choat, director of aviation for the Port of Bellingham. “They’re a big part of the local economy.”
For the most part, a healthy general aviation sector can signal one of two things: that a lot of locals enjoy recreational flying and have the money to do so, or that more and more business people cannot afford to waste time (and money) traveling any other way.
Time is money in the business world and at a certain point, the time saved by flying to that business meeting in Portland. will outweigh the costs of the high-grade jet fuel necessary to get there.
“That’s the type of businessman that you’ll see getting into general aviation, be it flying himself or having corporate aircraft,” Choat said.
This summer, as the cost of commercial flights increased and airport security became even more stringent and cumbersome, the demand for general aviation hangars and airplane parking spaces, called tie-downs, at the Bellingham airport (BLI) increased so much that Choat had to start a waiting list.
“We have a lot of private individuals who want to build hangars,” Choat said. “Our problem is that we don’t have any land available.”
Currently, BLI is home to 205 private and corporate aircraft. They occupy 34 acres out of 1,200 that belong to the airport. That may seem small, but not all of the airport property is developed. Approximately one-third is developed and most of it is wetlands and landing-strip buffer zones. That could change by the end of next year, though.
As the port enters into phase 2 of its parking lot expansion project, it is also working on expanding the presence of general aviation. Included in the most recent master plan for the airport is a plan to develop an additional 29 acres of land for general aviation hangar space and tie-downs. Most of that land, however, is wetlands that would need to be filled and mitigated, which requires a special permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We’ve been after that permit now for two years,” Choat said. “We hope to have it in our hands by the third quarter of next year.”
Meanwhile, other parts of the project continue to move forward. Last month the port signed a $180,000 contract with URS, a Seattle-based planning and engineering firm, to conduct a market analysis of regional trends in general aviation and create a preliminary design for the new facilities. A final report on their findings is expected to come out in July 2008.
“That report will have a business plan, a market analysis, and everything we need to make decisions on the future development of those lands,” Choat said. “And hopefully it’ll come out just about the same time we’ll get a wetland fill permit.”
Commuting by air
While the port awaits its permit, business continues as usual for TEK Construction.
Every Sunday, one of TEK’s four planes takes off from BLI, picks up several project managers from around the Northwest and drops them off at their current job site for the week, which can be anywhere in Washington, Idaho, or Oregon. They stay at the job site until Thursday, when the plane picks them up again and flies them home for a three-day weekend.
Due to the nature of their construction work — mostly municipal water/sewer treatment facilities — and the far-flung locations where they often do their work, flying management staff to job sites just made sense, said owner Dean Irwin.
“We just incorporated flying early on and stuck with it,” Irwin said.
In their 12 years of business, TEK has been flying for 11. In fact, most of the company is designed around the convenience of general aviation. For example, only a handful of staff members live in Whatcom County; the rest live throughout Washington and Oregon and are picked up by the company plane. When state government bids are due, the company flies down to Olympia to deliver their bid in person. Before submitting a bid, they will often fly out to examine the potential site.
Flying is not cheap, though. Airplanes are an expensive investment that require extensive upkeep, not to mention a trained pilot to fly them. Keeping track of whether or not the expenses are worth it can be difficult, Irwin said.
“There are a lot of variables that really determine if it’s a cost-effective way to [travel],” said Irwin. “On one trip you might save money, on the next trip you might not, depending on where that trip is and how many guys are in the plane versus how many would drive.”
But for Irwin, the real benefit of commuting via plane is seen in his employees’ attitudes. Flying allows them to live where they choose, rather than being forced to move to Whatcom County to be close to company headquarters. It also relieves them of hours spent driving to and from job sites.
“You put six guys out driving versus one guy flying those six guys,” Irwin said. “To me its far safer to have those guys in an airplane, provided you get qualified pilots, which we do have.”
Irwin himself is a licensed pilot. It’s something that he said had always piqued his interest. So after the company started flying, he slowly began working toward his certification, which required him to attend classes and fly a certain number of hours both with an instructor and on his own.
“It became a necessity for me,” Irwin said. “If your time means a whole lot to you, it’s a real good way to consider traveling. You can get to Portland and have a two or three hour meeting and be back by dinner and not have to sit in traffic.”
After a stressful day of securing new bids and keeping the business aloft, flying is something that Irwin uses to relax. Getting above the clouds and away from the hectic world below helps put everything back into perspective, he said.
Eyes in the sky
Just down the road from TEK Construction, at the last roundabout on Mitchell Way, another company is in the process of joining the group of businesses that use Bellingham’s general aviation terminal.
Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute is currently awaiting a building permit from the port before they break ground on a proposed 9,000-square-foot eye-surgery clinic. The company has already been approved as a lessee, said Marlin Gimbel, director of professional relations for PCLI.
The proposed eye clinic will be unlike any other conventional surgical facility: there will be no resident surgeons. Instead, PCLI plans to fly its surgical staff to Bellingham when there are operations that need to be done.
So far, their business model has worked. PCLI started in 1985 in Chehalis, Wash., with two eye surgeons who also happened to be pilots. As their business grew and clients from as far away as Idaho started requesting their services, the company started flying patients to their facility.
“We never expected to have more than one office,” said Gimbel, who has been with the company for 14 years. “Then as we opened more offices, we moved away from transporting patients to transporting surgeons.”
Now, PCLI flies 10 surgeons and their staff to 13 different locations around the Pacific Northwest and as far away as Alaska and Montana. They own five aircraft, all of which are operated by professional pilots.
This model of bringing the services to the client rather than the client traveling to the service provider allows PCLI to operate in markets where the demand may not be enough to warrant a daily clinic. For example, in a market such as Whatcom County, they may perform only four to six eye surgeries per month. If such a clinic were to keep an in-house surgeon, it would have to be part time, Gimbel said.
“To have a surgeon sitting there for a week not doing anything is a waste of his time,” Gimbel said.
So by utilizing air travel, PCLI can maximize the number of surgeries their staff perform, which in turn allows them to hone their skills and become better surgeons. In turn, all of their clients have access to world-class surgeons, Gimbel said.
Also, since all of their facilities are located close to local airports, surgical staff have an easy time moving from one facility to another.
“If patients ever have a complication they can be assured that a surgeon is never far off,” Gimbel said.
PCLI first considered opening a surgical facility in Bellingham more than two years ago, after receiving multiple requests from local eye doctors.
“We’re a referral center; we don’t do any advertising,” Gimbel said. “All of our patients come referred by a family eye doctor.”
Business at BLI
It’s no surprise to Choat that people want to do business near the airport. BLI has a lot to offer to the general aviation sector.
It is the only airport in Whatcom, Skagit, and Island counties that has an air traffic control tower, thus adding an extra level of safety for pilots who land there. It also offers fueling services, avionics maintenance, and a meeting room complete with a computer for pilots to check flight plans with the FAA and check the weather.
The one thing the airport needs is more room.
“Right now, if we had the room, we’d have a whole bunch more hangars out there,” Choat said. “But until we can get a wetland fill permit, we’re landlocked. We are out of land to develop hangars or tie-down space.”
Until then, Choat said, he expects the waiting list to continue, especially if more people choose to travel via general aviation rather than commercial. Though the increase in general aviation is making it more difficult to run the airport, Choat said he is excited to see the industry expand.
“That means businesses are doing well.”