Gaining Altitude: Bellingham Airport expansion driven by heavy traffic from Canadian travelers

Like many who own homes near the Bellingham International Airport, Ahwren Ayers has noticed the swelling number of jets cruising over her neighborhood just off Northwest Avenue.

Fueled by an increase in Canadian passengers seeking cheap flights out of U.S. airports, about five times as many people will fly out of Bellingham this year than in 2005.

With airport officials expecting more traffic, Ayers – who owns My Pet’s Place, a dog and cat grooming business on Dupont Street – and other residents and business owners are saying now is the time to address the potential effects of expansion.

“This impacts all of Whatcom County, and unfortunately some people are not hearing about it,” she said. “We’re the ones who live here, who were born here, who have businesses here.”

Port of Bellingham officials have begun gathering comments as they move through initial stages updating the airport’s master plan, expected to be complete by early 2013.

Consultants from URS Corp. of Seattle, which is conducting the update process, project the combined total of annual takeoffs and landings at the Bellingham airport could increase from 5,500 in 2011 to nearly 14,000 by 2031.

If growth materializes, in two decades more than 1 million passengers could travel through the airport’s terminal each year.

Lead consultant John Yarnish said the airport boomed with the 2004 arrival of Allegiant Air, a low-cost carrier operating in 77 cities nationwide.

Low-cost airlines attract customers with cheap fares and flights to locations generally not served by major carriers.

To make up for losses in ticket sales, they concentrate on quick turnarounds at gates and usually eliminate perks such as free beverage service, priority boarding and assigned seating.

Allegiant began with direct flights to Las Vegas, Nev., where the airline’s parent firm, Allegiant Travel Company, is headquartered.

It quickly expanded and now flies nonstop to six destinations including Phoenix, Ariz., Los Angeles, Calif., and Palm Springs, Calif.

With Allegiant’s success, the airport is attracting other no-frills airlines. Frontier Airlines, a low-cost carrier owned by Indianapolis, Ind.-based Republic Airways Holdings Inc., will start service to Denver on May 24.

Canuck fliers surge

Yarnish said while Whatcom County residents certainly have more air travel destinations, it is the influx of Canadian passengers attracting new service.

“We’re not kidding ourselves as to what drove this market and what drove this growth,” he said during an April 19 community meeting organized by port officials.

Bellingham is not the only U.S. city seeing more air travelers from Canada.

Lured by cheap tickets and heavy marketing from American airlines, nearly 5 million Canadian passengers nationwide crossed the border last year to catch flights – a 15 percent increase from the previous year, according to a March 2012 study from the Canadian Airports Council, a trade association for airports north of the border.

Not only are base fares cheaper in the U.S., but fees and taxes for tickets bought in Canada are also much higher.

According to the study, if a family of four from Vancouver, British Columbia, wanted to fly to Honolulu, Hawaii, their combined one-way fares would be $1,365 cheaper, taxes and fees included, if they drove south and flew out of Bellingham.

The council found Canadian travelers don’t seem to mind driving over the border, even making commutes up to 3 hours long, to catch cheaper flights even if there are Canadian airports close-by offering flights to the same locations.

U.S. airlines, particularly low-cost carriers, are seizing the opportunity.

Bellingham to expand as local air hub

Dan Zenk, the port’s aviation director, said airlines are responding to changes in their customer bases.

“They’re more or less redirecting the markets that are going to be profitable to them,” he said.

Low operating costs have played a key role in Bellingham’s attractiveness for air travel.

An airline will spend on average $1.25 per passenger at the Bellingham airport to cover fueling, ground leasing and other expenses.

Across the border at the Vancouver International Airport, that cost increases to $16.50 per passenger. At the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, airlines spend $22 for each person boarding a flight.

Zenk said by using Federal Aviation Administration grants and funding programs to pay for projects at the airport, including runway improvements and a terminal expansion, Bellingham kept outlays cheap for airlines.

“We’ve done really well to keep those costs down,” Zenk said. “If you raise those costs, the airlines are going to go somewhere else.”

Airport manager Mark Leutwiler said in addition to cutting costs, airlines are looking for locations with strong passenger bases.

Zenk said the port measures the passenger base for Bellingham on two levels, one that counts every potential air traveler within a 60-mile radius and another that counts travelers within 90 miles.

There are 1.2 million potential passengers within 60 miles of Bellingham; within 90 miles, that number increases to 3.4 million, according to Zenk.

The port has been gradually expanding the airport’s terminal over the last decade.

In 2006, it added a modular gate building for passengers to wait for flights and also enclosed the airport’s bag claim, which had until then been left open air.

The airport’s runway and taxiway were also reconstructed in 2010, allowing it to land planes as large as Boeing 757s.

Now, with passenger levels rising, the port is in the middle of construction that will increase the terminal’s size to more than 100,000 square feet.

The first phase, completed last year, included building a new, larger departure lobby.

Phase two will add a baggage carousel, expanded ticket areas and more space and amenities for passengers.

The port awarded a nearly $17 million construction contract for phase two of the project to Dawson Construction, Inc., a firm with corporate offices in Bellingham and Ketchikan, Alaska, in February. Work should finish by fall 2013.

With more flights come more local jobs

U.S. airports accounted for 10.5 million jobs nationwide in 2010, a 56 percent increase in the industry since 2001, according to a February 2012 study from Airports Council International-North America, a trade group representing airports and aviation-related businesses in the U.S. and Canada.

Looking at direct employment numbers, if all U.S. airports were combined they would be the nation’s second largest employer after Wal-Mart, the study found.

In Bellingham, the airport supported 1,196 jobs in 2010, including workers directly connected to airport operations as well as people with jobs driven by airline and aviation services, according to a survey from Martin Associates, an economic consulting firm.

During the same year, the airport generated $160,781 in business revenue and $13,498 in state, local and aviation taxes.

“We do know there is a very real, positive economic impact being generated by the airport,” Yarnish said.

Zenk said increased air travel options would help local business, particularly Whatcom County’s hotel and tourism industry.

The airport also attracts airline industry jobs.

Since Allegiant selected Bellingham to serve as one its operations centers in 2008, basing flight and maintenance crews in the area, about 60 jobs have been added to the region, Zenk said.

Allegiant appears to have long-term plans in Bellingham.

Airline officials are close to an agreement with the port to build a 9,000-square-foot commissary building on airport grounds. Zenk said the port is seeking a 30-year leasing agreement with the carrier.

“They want to get started right away,” he said.

Airport noise stirring backlash

For Ayers, not enough has been said about the potential negative impacts of expansion, especially the increase in jet noise.

If takeoffs and landings in Bellingham continue to grow, she said, she isn’t even sure how much longer she will want to keep living in the area.

Thousands of Whatcom County residents will likely be faced with the same dilemma, she said.

The question and comment period during the April 19 afternoon public meeting – the first of two meetings scheduled by port officials that day – brought out a litany of concerns from residents.

Ayers said she thought the port was underestimating the impact an airport expansion could have on locals, and she didn’t think port officials were trying hard enough to get feedback.

Zenk said the port was doing its best to reach out to the Whatcom community, including making announcements in local media and on the port’s website.

“We are interested in both the positive and the negative responses so we get a good understanding of how this impacts the community as a whole,” Zenk said.

Future public meetings will likely be scheduled next fall once the port begins evaluating expansion options, identifying possible alternatives and performing environmental reviews.

Ultimately, the port’s board of commissioners will have the final say on which direction to take.

Increased noise was a common complaint at the meeting, but residents also questioned just how much those living in the county would benefit if the airport’s expansion was driven to serve Canadian travelers.

Ayers said she always thought it was a privilege to have an airport nearby with flights to Seattle and other locations.

However, if expansion comes at the expense of county residents rather than their benefit, it’s not a deal she wants to take.

“That’s not serving our community,” she said. “No matter how hard you look at it.”

 

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Evan Marczynski Photos

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