Busy skies over Bellingham

Bellingham is one of the few airports in the Pacific Northwest that is still growing. An industry report for the...

Steady growth leads to major runway and terminal improvements at airport

By Isaac Bonnell

Going into its 70th year of service, Bellingham International Airport (BLI) will mark a major milestone this month. On March 4, it will officially be upgraded from an Index B airport to an Index C airport, indicating a higher level of traffic.

Though it may seem like just a formality, the reclassification is leading to two much-needed improvements this year: a complete reconstruction of the runway and taxiway to handle larger aircraft and a major overhaul of the terminal to meet the demands of more passengers.

The reconstruction of the runway and taxiway is slated to begin in May and will last through September, when the whole airport will be shut down for three weeks while the runway is torn up. The projected cost is around $24 million.

“This is a huge project for us,” said Port communications manager Carolyn Casey. “It’s the largest single Port project ever in terms of dollar value.”

The project wouldn’t be possible without significant financial support from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is funding 95 percent of the construction, said aviation director Art Choat. The FAA has been closely following growth at BLI over the last several years and has helped the Port prepare for more passengers.

When the need arose for a new airport rescue firefighting station — a $2.7 million facility that opened last August — it was the FAA that suggested the Port build a larger building to meet Index C requirements.

“They could see us growing,” Choat said.

In fact, Bellingham is one of the few airports in the Pacific Northwest that is still growing. An industry report for the year ending Sept. 30, 2009, ranked BLI as the 10th largest airport out of 73 in the region. And out of the top 15, it was the only one to report positive growth.

“We grew 18 percent last year and all the others went backwards,” Choat said.

More Allegiant flights

Eighteen percent more passengers means more aircraft coming and going. When BLI reaches Index C, that means it will be averaging five flights a day from the largest aircraft that the runway can currently hold, the MD-80s used by Allegiant Air.

“The second week in March we’ll be up to about 37 flights a week, and we’ll grow it to as many as 46 flights a week this year,” Choat said. “All that growth is Allegiant. When you look at how many people are being moved through the airport, Allegiant is moving about 60 percent of the total volume of people.”

By comparison, Horizon Air runs 34 flights a week and Alaska Airlines operates three flights week, but both carriers use smaller airplanes.

The years of steady growth at the airport are due in large part to the sunny tourist destinations it serves and the massive influx of Canadian travelers. More than half of the passengers leaving BLI are Canadian, Choat said, and without them this airport would be just like all the other sleepy, one-strip airports around the country.

“If they close the border tomorrow, we would have one destination left and that would be to Seattle, because there’s not enough people locally to support the service that we currently have,” he said.

So why are so many Canadians flying out of Bellingham rather than Vancouver International Airport? Vancouver serves the same destinations as Bellingham, but by flying out of Bellingham, Canadians avoid paying the Goods and Services Tax (GST), Choat said.

“It’s a trade advantage for us, so to speak,” he said.

And for many living in the Lower Mainland, it’s just as easy to drive to Bellingham as to drive into Vancouver.

Terminal capacity

BLI may look like a small airport, especially when you consider the size of the terminal, but it is bursting at the seams.

The original terminal was built in 1981 and has undergone four additions. It’s currently about 30,000 square feet and can handle about 9,000 passengers a month.

“We’re currently handling just under 30,000 passengers a month through that terminal, so it’s under a lot of stress,” Choat said.

The terminal also lacks a permanent holding gate for departing passengers and the temporary gate with seating for 260 is overcrowded when two flights are scheduled to leave around the same time.
So starting in August, the Port will start phase one of a three- to five-year reconstruction of the terminal. The project is expected to cost around $24 million, but spread out of over the length of the project.

In the end, the terminal will grow to nearly 80,000 square feet and will be capable of shuffling 45,000 passengers a month through its doors. The departure gate will have room for 450 people with the possibility to expand it to seat 600.

Runway improvements

The one factor that will always limit growth at BLI is the runway. At 6,701 feet long, the runway is as long as it’s ever going to get in our lifetime, Choat said. But it can still be strengthened to accommodate larger aircraft.

Built in 1941 by the military, the airstrip has received only minor improvements over the years.
“We’re putting $10,000 a month into this runway just in ongoing maintenance, because that’s how bad it’s coming apart,” Choat said.

Last July, when the Port began planning to tear up the runway and rebuild it, the FAA said that the runway should not only be repaired, but also upgraded to handle planes as large at 757s, which can hold about 220 passengers. This means that the Port will level the runway — adding as much as 36 inches of fill in some areas — and add an extra nine inches of asphalt on top of it all.

The taxiway next to the runway will also be expanded from 60 feet wide to 75 feet to accommodate larger planes, Choat said. Construction on the taxiway will start in May and happen in phases to allow for planes to still access the runway.

But on Sept. 1, the whole airport is scheduled to shut down for construction on the runway. Crews will work around the clock and lay an estimated 140,000 tons of asphalt, so much that two temporary asphalt production units will be brought onto the site.

“The whole project is very big,” he said. “It’s the single largest asphalt project in Whatcom County in a concentrated period of time.”

Bellingham International Airport stats

Three airlines operate out of Bellingham International Airport (BLI): Alaska Airlines, Horizon Air and Allegiant Air. Using these carriers, passengers can fly directly from Bellingham to Seattle, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Palm Springs, San Diego, San Francisco or Los Angeles.

The number of passengers flying out of BLI has increased steadily during the past six years:
2004: 79,890, up 25% from the previous year
2005: 98,497, up 23%
2006: 132,059, up 34%
2007: 229,837, up 74%
2008, 269,595, up 17%
2009: 320,358, up 18%

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