Local travelers have discovered Bellingham’s airport and we are hard at work to make sure the airport services grow to keep pace.
The Port of Bellingham operates the Bellingham International Airport and we recognize that investing in the airport is an essential way to support local business. While some people in our community only use the airport when they head out on vacation, many more business people rely on the airport for regular business trips, to ship air cargo or to bring customers and clients to Whatcom County.
During the past few years, the Bellingham airport has been successful in attracting new air carriers and in gaining more flights and destinations from our existing airlines. People in our community are enjoying access to more direct flight destinations. But we know that on busy flight days our waiting areas, security screening areas and baggage claim can feel too crowded.
Keeping pace with the growing airport use has been a high priority for the port and a challenging one, too. We have gone from 63,781 annual passengers in 2003 to 226,785 passengers in 2007 – a 37 percent annual growth rate. Each year we have invested in additional terminal space, parking and building adjustments to help our airport meet the demands. Last year we added 370 new parking spaces and this year we will add another 270 spaces.
Your county-wide port district knows that when we invest in the airport, we are investing in economic development. This year alone, the port will spend over $10 million in major construction projects at the airport. The construction itself will create numerous local jobs and this type of an investment will have an enormous long-term impact on our community. And, none of this work will impact local property tax bills. All of the funding is coming from airport user fees that have been collected over time locally and nationwide. The Bellingham airport is maintained and operated without using any property taxes.
Most of the work we have planned at the airport for 2008 will not be very visible to our travelers. Because more airlines are keeping their planes in Bellingham overnight, we will spend about $6 million reinforcing and strengthening our aircraft parking area alongside the terminal. We also will spend over $2 million building a new, expanded airport emergency response building.
Additional aircraft parking will directly result in more jobs in our community because it allows commercial airlines to have their planes maintained and serviced in Bellingham. In 2008, Allegiant Air will begin keeping planes in Bellingham overnight and will further expand its services out of Bellingham. It began serving Bellingham in 2004 with four flights a week to Las Vegas. By March, Allegiant will offer 27 flights a week to Las Vegas, Reno, Palm Springs and Phoenix. Allegiant is hiring mechanics, flight crews, pilots and related staff as it begins using Bellingham as a mini-hub for its operations. By March, Allegiant will have nearly 80 local employees.
We’ve also had new aircraft fueling, maintenance and service businesses open. In 2001, before our huge growth spurt, the state of Washington estimated the Bellingham airport contributed $54 million to the local economy. Now that flights and services have grown by four times what they were in 2001, you can imagine how the economic impact number has soared.
Horizon Air has been at Bellingham airport for more than 20 years. In 2007, it nearly doubled the passenger capacity for Bellingham when it switched to larger planes. We also had Delta begin offering direct flights to Salt Lake City in 2006.
Some people worry that the Bellingham airport might grow too big or might one day rival the SeaTac airport. Here’s an interesting statistic – one year of our highest passenger levels equals less than one week of SeaTac’s passenger load.
We recognize that we need to find a balance between meeting air traveler’s needs and growing too large. During 2007, we launched an extensive effort to determine the community’s long-range vision for the airport. We surveyed passengers, met with community leaders, spoke with dozens of local community groups and met with our community Airport Advisory Committee.
This year, port staff will be taking all of that information and using it to draft an airport business model and a commercial air terminal expansion plan that we hope will demonstrate that balance. Our goal is to design a new commercial terminal in 2008 and begin construction in 2009. This project will be paid for with user fees, rents and other non-property-tax sources.
Our Bellingham airport is a vital part of our economy and we are working with the community to make sure it grows to meet our growing community’s needs.