As aviation analysts predicted, more jet traffic has come to Whatcom County.
Low-fare carrier Frontier Airlines began seasonal service between Bellingham and its Denver hub on May 24. Frontier now operates daily nonstop flights on the new route using a 138-seat Airbus A319 aircraft.
Company executives said the Bellingham International Airport’s location and cheap operating costs could help them capitalize on a growing air travel trend between Washington and Colorado.
They may also be able to snag passengers from a lucrative market north of the border.
“We came to tap into a different geography in the state and use a low-cost airport,” said Daniel Shurz, senior vice president of Frontier’s commercial operations. “We see it as a way to offer a much more cost-effective way to get to Vancouver.”
High operating costs have stymied Frontier’s attempts to fly direct to Vancouver, a missed business opportunity since the airline’s Denver base has become a popular destination for Canadian travelers, Shurz said.
Though the new service in Bellingham is designed to attract Canadians, Shurz said Whatcom County residents should also avail.
“I would argue that this is a benefit to the community,” he said, “There’s a secondary traffic source available that allows for more traffic in the Bellingham area.”
Frontier, founded in 1994, is known for its top-rated service and quirky ad campaigns featuring the “spokesanimals” that adorn its aircrafts’ livery.
Flights include amenities unusual for budget airlines, including seatback Direct-TV service and select aircraft rows with 5 to 7 inches of extra legroom.
Shurz said despite the add-ons, which are available for additional charge, Frontier emphasizes its low-cost nature when it enters new markets.
A one-way ticket between Bellingham and Denver starts at $95.
June flight bookings for the route are already above the airline’s average for new service, Shurz said.
“We start with fares that are attractive enough to get people’s attention,” he said.
U.S. airlines are in uncertain times.
With volatile fuel costs and rising labor and maintenance expenses, turning a profit in the industry is getting tougher.
Steve Lott, a spokesperson for the trade group Airlines for America, said the airlines’ struggles are actually benefitting consumers, as the competition to attract passengers is keeping ticket prices from rising.
Travelers also still have tremendous choice in air-travel options, he said.
“The good news for travelers is there are still many different airline service models,” Lott said.
Frontier moves in, airport moves forward
Frontier Airlines arrives as the Port of Bellingham plans to expand the airport.
A decade ago, the Bellingham terminal handled roughly 100,000 passengers annually. In 2012, airport officials expect to see more than 550,000 travelers.
That level might continue to rise.
By 2031, more than 1 million people could use the airport annually for air travel, according to URS Corp. of Seattle, an engineering and consulting firm conducting an update of the airport’s master plan.
An increasing number of Canadian travelers has swelled the Bellingham airport’s capacity.
Other U.S. airports along the border are seeing the same trend.
In 2011, driven by cheaper tickets, lower taxes and less hassle with airport customs agents, nearly 5 million Canadian travelers opted to cross the border to catch flights, according to the Canadian Airports Council, an industry trade group.
Canadian airport officials are stuck figuring out how to stop the cross-border passenger leakage, equivalent to losing more than 65 fully-loaded daily flights on Boeing 737s every year.
Dan Zenk, the Port of Bellingham’s aviation director, said the Bellingham airport is in a prime spot for airlines looking to expand.
“Bellingham has gotten their attention just because the way that we’re growing and the numbers that we’re putting up,” he said.
Zenk said a slew of other airlines were interesting in coming to Bellingham.
With the airport’s rebuilt runway capable of handling jets as large as a Boeing 757, future flights to New York, Salt Lake City and Minneapolis/St. Paul could be possible.
Before any of that happens, the airport needs more room.
“We’re not marketing really hard right now because we don’t have the facilities to handle much more growth,” Zenk said.
Potential expansion has raised the ire of residents in neighborhoods surrounding the airport, who say the noise from a growing number of jets landing and taking off is reaching intolerable levels.
The port plans to hold public information meetings later this year and into 2013 to hear feedback before anything is finalized.
Shurz said it’s understandable for the Bellingham airport to begin making steps toward expansion. Its sharp growth within the last five years has shown there is demand for more activity.
“Obviously this is an airport that until a few years ago was a relatively sleepy place,” Shurz said. “It’s a constrained facility; it makes rational sense for the airport to expand.”