by J.J. Jensen
The Bellingham International Airport this year will receive something it hasn’t had since the Port of Bellingham assumed operations of the airport from Whatcom County in the 1950s – significant improvements.
Scheduled for upgrades or repairs are the baggage-handling area, the main terminal’s entryway and roof, and taxiways “E” and “F.” The projects, combined, will cost around $3.2 million, funded by the $4.50 charge passengers pay on outbound tickets from the airport.
And, if all goes well, the airport may soon add more than 100 parking spaces, and expand its properties by reacquiring the 14-acre Washington Air National Guard site, which has sat mostly dormant since the unit moved operations to Thurston County several years ago.
While airport officials are pleased about providing an improved, more aesthetically pleasing experience for travelers and local aviators, they also know the betterments won’t hurt the port’s chances of attracting another air cargo operator or an additional – and much-sought after – commercial airline company.
“The action’s picking up,” said Art Choat, director of aviation and port security. “It would be big-time if that all happened.”
The first changes visitors to the airport will notice will be the improvements to the baggage-handling area.
In the past, travelers have had to claim their luggage outside the main terminal, in an area exposed to the weather.
Currently, construction workers are enclosing the baggage-claim area, which will then be equipped with heating and air conditioning; the project should be completed in a few weeks.
To create more space in the main terminal, the airport’s rental-car companies will relocate to the new baggage-claim area as well.
By the end of June, the main terminal will also receive a facelift. Choat didn’t have renderings readily available last week but said the front of the building will be given more of a “Northwest feel,” complete with vertical wooden posts and rock features. The roof, which currently has a large, blue tarp covering portions of it, will also get repairs.
“We feel a Northwest theme will let arriving passengers know they’re in the Northwest, not just another terminal with four walls,” Choat said.
The upgrades come at a good time, as the airport anticipates acquiring another regional carrier in the next few months, which will bring possibly thousands more travelers through its terminal. Also, as a port of entry to the United States, the upgrades spruce up the airport’s image.
“If you don’t have your infrastructure in place, you’re not going to encourage anyone to come,” Choat said.
Many of the airport’s general aviation businesses are most excited about the possibility of acquiring the Washington Air National Guard site.
“It would open up a lot more hangar space,” said Fred Knutzen, owner of Bellingham Aero Aviation Service. “There’s a big shortage out here right now.”
Presently, Choat said, the airport has no more hangar space for corporate or privately owned planes and other specialized aviation services.
Acquiring the Washington Air National Guard site could potentially provide space for around 150 Cessnas. In turn, serving more corporate planes or air-taxi services could complement Bellingham’s tourism industry and produce more opportunities for services already at the airport.
Many in the community are also excited about the possibility of Bellingham getting another commercial airline company that will fly to a western hub, to complement Horizon Air, which flies to Seattle, and Allegiant Air, which flies to Las Vegas.
Choat, who in the next few weeks is meeting with representatives of several major, regional and “upstart” airlines, is optimistic that could happen soon.
Some port officials say there could be an announcement by the end of summer.
One startup company, which Choat declined to name, is particularly serious. It would likely operate 150-seat passenger jets and offer, potentially, direct flights to Phoenix and Palm Desert, Calif., among other destinations.
The success of Horizon Air and Allegiant Air, whose flights are usually near capacity, combined with a recent port poll that showed travelers here would be willing to pay more to fly out of Bellingham than other nearby airports, are positive signs to potential carriers. Also, as Bellingham’s population increases, there will be a higher demand for travel opportunities.
Rob Pochert, director of the Bellingham/Whatcom Economic Development Council, said the upgrades at the airport and the possibility of another commercial carrier are significant to the community.
“The airport is a gateway to our community and it has to be attractive,” he said. “We have business people and tourists flying in and out all the time and it needs to be top drawer.
“(Another commercial airline) is a benchmark and it provides an alternative to traveling in and out of Seattle. It’s more opportunity for travel and a connection to other regional hubs. We hear on a consistent basis from people in the business community that they’d like to get out of town without having to go through Seattle.”