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Art Choat, Port of Bellingham aviation director, retires amid illness

Art Choat, left greets friend Drew Schmidt of San Juan Cruises at Choat's retirement party  at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal Tuesday night, Nov. 29, 2011,Choat retired from the Port of Bellingham after 29 years.  Watching is Choat's wife, Billie Choat.
Art Choat, left greets friend Drew Schmidt of San Juan Cruises at Choat's retirement party at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal Tuesday night, Nov. 29, 2011,Choat retired from the Port of Bellingham after 29 years. Watching is Choat's wife, Billie Choat. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - The new terminal addition at Bellingham International Airport opened at the end of June 2011, but Port of Bellingham aviation director Art Choat didn't get his first look inside until almost the end of November.

Choat, 62, has been undergoing chemotherapy for advanced lung cancer. That weakened his immune system and forced him to avoid crowded places, because his doctors told him that if he caught a cold, he could wind up in the hospital with pneumonia.

Choat's last day on the job will be Wednesday, Nov. 30, after 29 years at the port. Doctors have estimated his life expectancy at 12 to 18 months, but Choat said his illness responded well to the chemotherapy and he hopes he can do better than that.

"I don't think I'm going to die in 12 to 18 months," Choat said. "I feel too strong."

Choat is an avid photographer, and he's planning on devoting as much free time as possible to that in the months ahead. He's contemplating purchase of a small drone aircraft that can take aerial shots.

As he sits in the new terminal and discusses the dizzying pace of growth in Bellingham commercial aviation in the past few years, he sounds like the same upbeat Bellingham International Airport promoter who took on the aviation director's job in 2002.

In that year, the airport logged 68,000 departing passengers - all on flights to Seattle. In 2011, the passenger count is expected to hit a half million, including flights to Honolulu, several California destinations, Arizona and Las Vegas.

Choat predicts that once the final phase of the $38 million terminal expansion is complete in about 16 months, the airport will be poised for another big leap in air service: flights to Denver and Chicago. Major airlines are aware of the potential market here, he added.

Besides the influx of Canadian travelers who still make up at least 50 percent of the passengers flying out of Bellingham, Choat said that travelers from as far away as north King County are becoming aware of Bellingham as an option if they want to save on parking and avoid Sea-Tac traffic.

Choat said he has devoted a lot of energy to marketing Bellingham to airline executives, while working through the paperwork involved in obtaining Federal Aviation Administration funding that has helped upgrade the airport, combined with locally generated airport revenue from passenger fees.

Choat credited Daniel Zenk, airport manager, with a key role in the airport's growth. Zenk will take over the aviation director role upon Choat's departure.

"Dan was paramount to my success," Choat said.

Choat joined the port in 1982 after private-sector experience with Weldcraft and Uniflite, the defunct boat-building firm that was once a major employer in Bellingham. Before he assumed responsibility for the airport, he worked in a number of supervisory jobs on the waterfront. Among other things, he oversaw the expansion of the port's Blaine marina in the 1980s.

Former port commissioner Doug Smith said Choat brought strong business instincts to his various port jobs.

"He has tremendous business ethics," Smith said. "I think that helped us maintain our very favorable relationships under some trying times and situations."

At a Tuesday, Nov. 29, reception at Bellingham Cruise Terminal, present and former port staffers gathered to salute Choat.

"I can sincerely say there won't be anyone else like you," Port Commissioner Scott Walker said.

Allegiant Travel Co. representatives read a letter from company president Andrew Levy, crediting Choat with a key role in getting the Las Vegas-based airline established here.

"Bellingham became the first community of its kind to host an aircraft base for Allegiant, creating local jobs for pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and additional airport personnel," Levy wrote. "This successful expansion would not have been possible without Art's partnership and fiscal responsibility."

The reception seemed like any other retirement event. People lined up for a slice of the farewell cake, then headed to the microphone for a farewell roast.

While Choat manages to seem matter-of-fact about his illness, he admits it's an emotional challenge.

"You wake up thinking about it," he said. "You go to bed thinking about it. That doesn't mean I'm going to quit living."

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