Fewer people are flying out of Bellingham, but the airport has plans to pump up traffic

Bellingham International Airport with Bellingham Bay in the background.
Bellingham International Airport with Bellingham Bay in the background. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

As it looks for ways to increase passenger traffic, Bellingham International Airport is becoming more aggressive about adding new destinations.

Following the advice of consultants, this year the Port of Bellingham will enhance its inducement offers for certain destinations, said Sunil Harman, the airport’s director of aviation.

Airports use a variety of tactics to convince an airline to come to a community or add flights, such as cost breaks on airport or marketing fees. One strategy smaller airports use in negotiating is guaranteeing a certain level of passengers will use a flight, also known as a passenger load factor.

For example, if Bellingham were to negotiate with an airline to offer flights between here and Denver, the airport might guarantee that a certain percentage of the seats will be full. If that doesn’t happen, the airport would reimburse the difference to the airline.

Each negotiation is different, but the plan is to increase its incentives for places that Bellingham doesn’t currently serve but are popular with people in this area.

The target destinations include Honolulu, Denver, Tucson, Reno, Albuquerque and Chicago, Harman said.

For Bellingham, it doesn’t want to make a seat percentage guarantee unless it is confident that it can be achieved, Harman said. Through research and surveys, airport officials are confident the target destinations would be popular, he said. Take the Denver service for instance, officials know not only through surveys but with past performance that it is a popular destination. When Frontier was offering seasonal fights between Bellingham and Denver from 2012-2013, the load factor was in the 90 percent range, Harman said. The airline stopped flying out Bellingham after it made changes to its business model, he added.

Harman said it’s possible some new service will be initiated this year, but more likely in 2019 as pilot and equipment shortages still affect airline planning decisions.

Sandy Ward, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, said that in surveys they’ve been undertaking at the Bellingham airport, the most common requests for new destinations are to Denver and Reno. The tourism bureau is particularly excited about Denver because residents in that area are interested in activities Bellingham has, including mountain biking and craft beer.

Ward said some 1,000 people requested more information about Bellingham when the tourism bureau was at the recent Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

“Having non-stop service to Denver would make it so much easier to develop that market,” Ward said.

The number of passengers flying out of Bellingham has continued to decline in recent years. According to data collected by the Port of Bellingham, 373,877 people flew out of the airport in 2017, a 10.8 percent drop compared to 2016. The peak year for the airport was in 2013, when nearly 600,000 people flew out of Bellingham.

Harman expects the numbers to stabilize in 2018, even with the announcement earlier this week that Alaska Airlines will begin offering flights to eight West Coast cities out of Paine Field in Everett, potentially taking away some passengers from Bellingham.

While airlines tend to point to the Canadian dollar as a significant factor in traffic decline at the airport between 2013 and 2017, Harman said cross-border surveys offer another reason for the decline.

“Cross-border and local customers are driven by airfare and vacation package pricing. A combination of Alaska leaving the Las Vegas and Honolulu seasonal markets (from Bellingham) and Allegiant reducing capacity across all cities means our customers are not finding as many deals as they had become accustomed to,” Harman said.

The decline in passenger traffic came at a tough time for Bellingham, right as the airport was finishing up a multiyear $38 million remodel and expansion project – the airport responded quickly by cutting costs and increasing revenue in other areas to maintain a positive cash flow.

The Port is also negotiating with an airline to offer flights to Victoria, B.C., possibly by this summer, Harman said. In terms of improvements, the Port plans on making some changes to the main terminal parking and upgrading the elevator in the main terminal.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz

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