What's behind the drop in traffic at the airport?

Traffic at Bellingham International Airport dropped for the first time in more than a decade last year and could fall even further this summer. An airport consultant expects a 35 percent year-over-year decline in traffic this June.

In 2012 and 2013, the Bellingham International Airport was one of the fastest growing airports in the country. In 2014, airlines cancelled some routes and reduced others to seasonal service, resulting in a 9.6 percent decrease in passenger traffic out of the airport.

The traffic decline came at the same time as a weakening Canadian dollar, as about 55 percent of airport passengers are Canadian. But the coming drop in traffic has more factors than the falling loonie, which lost nearly 20 cents compared to the U.S. dollar in the last two years, said Ben Munson, vice president of Forecast, an airport consulting firm.

Munson explained the situation to Port of Bellingham commissioners at an April 21 meeting. The Port has paid Munson’s firm $50,750 since 2013 to attract new airlines and retain current flights out of the airport. That’s frustrating to Port Commissioner Dan Robbins, who pointed out that Frontier Airlines, the last airline Forecast brought to the airport, announced in February that it is canceling its only flight out of Bellingham—a direct flight to Denver—effective this summer.

In addition to losing Frontier service to Denver, Allegiant is reducing flights to Las Vegas and other airports and Alaska Airlines is reducing flights to Las Vegas and Seattle this summer.

The number of people aboard individual planes flying out of Bellingham, called “load factor” in the industry, has remained high, Munson said. The loss of flights and accompanying drop in passengers has more to do with other factors in the industry.

“Bellingham is a high load factor market traditionally,” Munson said. “Lots of the capacity that’s been reduced has been reduced as a function of other things happening outside of Bellingham in the carrier’s networks.”

Industry changes

Munson broke down the forecasted traffic drop like this: 50 percent is due to Alaska cutting flights, 35 percent is because of Allegiant’s reduced service and the remaining 15 percent is due to Frontier Airlines canceling service to Denver.

Alaska Airlines, the biggest player, is moving planes to its base at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in response to competition from Delta. Delta is turning Sea-Tac into a hub and has roughly doubled its flights out of Seattle in the last two years, Munson said.

The result is cheaper flights out of Seattle.

“Seattle to San Diego’s average fare declined by almost 20 percent,” Munson said. “People with a choice between driving to Bellingham or Seattle, they’re seeing much more competitive prices now.”

Munson called Allegiant’s upcoming changes tactical; the low cost carrier is focusing on the East Coast, especially Florida. In the last year, Allegiant’s operations from most of its West Coast airports remained roughly flat, while the number of available seats out of four airports in Florida—Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Punta Gorda and Orlando—has increased from between 56 percent to 15 percent.

Frontier canceling its service to Denver can be chalked up to the airline making huge reductions at its Denver hub, Munson said. Bellingham is one of 27 airports around the country that will lose Frontier service to Denver this summer.

How does BLI Compare?

Bellingham International Airport isn’t the only U.S. airport near a Canadian metropolis that has been hurt by the falling loonie.

The Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Buffalo, New York, and the Plattsburg International Airport in Plattsburg, New York, both serve about half Canadian customers. Plattsburg’s airport is about 60 miles from Montreal, and Buffalo’s airport is about 100 miles from Toronto.

In the fourth quarter of 2014, traffic at those airports decreased 8 percent and 15 percent, respectively, according to Munson’s report to the commission. Traffic at the Bellingham airport was down 7 percent.

“For that time period, Bellingham actually compares relatively favorably to Buffalo and Plattsburg,” Munson said.

Nellie Snow, a travel consultant with White Rock Travel, just north of the border, said in March that her customers aren’t traveling to the U.S. as frequently as they were last year because they’re hurt by the exchange rate.

“We’re getting a lot less traffic into the U.S.,” she said. “If they’re concerned about the dollar, they’re going to Mexico or the Caribbean.”

Port budget

In the first quarter of 2015, port aviation brought in $1.9 million in revenue, which is about $300,000 lower than in the first quarter of last year, and below budget by almost $about $78,000, Tamara Sobjack director of finance at the Port of Bellingham, told the port commission. Expenses, however, were less than budgeted for by about $150,000.

The drop in traffic won’t affect the port’s ability to pay back bonds for the airports $32.5 million terminal expansion project, which was completed last year. The airport collects a $4.50 charge per passenger that goes toward the bond.

“The bond was set up with using very conservative numbers for in-plane passengers,” port aviation director Daniel Zenk said. “We’re able to meet the debt service for the life of the bond.”

The airport employs about 1,200 people and brings $225 million in revenue to the region, Zenk said.

The port is responding to the drop in revenue by looking for costs to cut and more ways to bring in revenue, Sobjack said. The airport launched a program that allows companies to buy advertisements on the screens at the airport.

Future possibilities

Passenger traffic out of the airport will pick up in November and December when Alaska and Allegiant bring back some seasonal flights. In the meantime, the Bellingham airport will be underserved, leading to full planes and a possible new opportunities, Munson said.

Munson is hopeful about Spirit Airlines, an ultra-low-cost carrier similar to Allegiant or Frontier. From 2010 to 2014 the Florida-based airline entered 18 new cities and more than doubled the amount of seats it offers. The airlines’ flights are concentrated in the south and east. Portland, Oregon is currently its closest service.

Munson said his firm is working with Spirit and other airlines to provide information about the Bellingham market, and building a case for them to come here.

“Spirit really exemplifies the ultra low cost carrier model,” Munson said. “Relevant to Bellingham is it’s a model that works here.”

Ben Munson, vice president of Forecast Inc., a consulting firm that does work for the Port of Bellingham, thinks Spirit Airlines could be a good fit for the Bellingham International Airport. From April 2010 to April 2015, Spirit Airlines entered 18 new cities and increased its amount of available seats by 140 percent. [Image courtesy of Forecast Inc.]
Ben Munson, vice president of Forecast Inc., a consulting firm that does work for the Port of Bellingham, thinks Spirit Airlines could be a good fit for the Bellingham International Airport. From April 2010 to April 2015, Spirit Airlines entered 18 new cities and increased its amount of available seats by 140 percent. [Image courtesy of Forecast Inc.]
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