MOVERS & SHAKERS: Taking Bellingham to higher heights

2010 was a big year for the Port of Bellingham. The organization undertook the two largest projects in its history,...

By Ryan Wynne

Last year was a big one for the Port of Bellingham, especially at the airport. In 2010, the largest projects in the organization’s history were in full swing and Art Choat, aviation director for the port, oversaw them both.

Runway reconstruction at the Bellingham International Airport (BLI) included laying more than 174,000 tons of asphalt, cost $29 million and closed the airport for three weeks in September. The new runway surface is strong enough to serve larger aircraft such as Boeing 757s.

“And the dust is almost settled — not quite — from that job and we’re starting our next project, which is the remodeling and expansion of our commercial terminal and that’s a $30 mill project,” Choat said.

Choat started working for the port in 1982 and in 2002 stepped into the role of aviation director. That year, 68,000 outbound passengers used the airport. Since then, the number of passengers at the airport has jumped significantly each year, and in 2010, about 400,000 outbound passengers used the airport. In 2011, Choat anticipates upward of 465,000 passengers.

“We are the fastest growing airport on a percentage basis on the West Coast of America and possibly the entire United States,” Choat said.

The terminal expansion isn’t intended to increase the number of passengers, he said, but to meet the current demand. BLI is meant to serve 9,000 outbound passengers per month, but currently handles about 37,000.

“So we are easily four times too small for what we should be,” Choat said.

Still, as the number of airport passengers continues to grow and the facilities expand, the airport will likely attract more passengers. More passengers means more airlines will see Bellingham as an attractive place to set up shop. Choat is already in communication with a few that fly east-to-west, a service that’s currently lacking.

Choat’s days involve a lot of paperwork and a lot of meetings — some of which are to talk about other meetings, he said. And all of this takes time.

“It doesn’t start and stop at eight and five,” he said.

Choat has worked an average of 55 hours per week since 1982, he said, but he is constantly at work, or at least work is constantly with him.

“If you don’t like nighttime calls, don’t go to work for the port,” he said.

And it’s not just the phone. Choat has a virtual private network at his house that ties him into the airport’s 36 video cameras, and if an alarm sounds at the airport, it also sounds at his house.

“So when I’m at home, I’m here if I want to be and even if I don’t want to be,” he said.

With the current projects, Choat is working even more than normal. As he explained it, the chores at home are piling up. Still, he said his staff members really deserve the spotlight — they have all worked extra hard lately to keep projects on schedule and keep the airport functioning at the same time.

They deserve to be paid more than they are — smaller airports have three times as many people doing the same thing, Choat said.

“We are the fastest growing airport on a percentage basis on the West Coast of America and possibly the entire United States.” Art Choat, Port of Bellingham aviation director

But Choat said he tries to keep the job friendly by celebrating victories as a team, not individuals, by acknowledging people’s efforts and by laughing.

It should be noted that during Choat’s interview, he at one point laughed and interrupted himself to point out the airport manager making a monkey face at him from the opposite side of the conference room window. At the end of the interview, the station boss for Alaska Airlines handed him a tiny airplane Christmas tree ornament made from sticks of gum, a cylinder pack of breath mints and Lifesavers landing gear.

Even with what appears to be a friendly atmosphere at the airport, Choat said it used to be a bit more fun.

“We need to laugh more, we used to laugh more and we will laugh more,” Choat said.

That brewing laughter will likely come spilling out in December 2012 — that’s when the terminal expansion is scheduled for completion. A year after that, Choat will have plenty of time to catch up on those chores piling up at home — that’s when he is scheduled to retire.

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