Bellingham airport could see 35 percent decline in passengers this summer

An Allegiant Air plane waits for passengers to board, April 2, 2014 at Bellingham International Airport.
An Allegiant Air plane waits for passengers to board, April 2, 2014 at Bellingham International Airport. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

This summer could prove to be slow for Bellingham International Airport as passenger numbers are expected to continue to drop, following on last year’s decline.

In 2014, the number of people flying out of the airport was down 9.6 percent compared to 2013, and is again expected to drop by as much as 15 to 20 percent this year compared to last, said Dan Zenk, director of aviation at the airport.

“We’re expecting to get hit very, very hard this summer,” Ben Munson, vice president of Forecast Inc., told the Port of Bellingham Commission Tuesday, April 21.

Forecast, a marketing group that has helped bring flights to the airport in the past, is currently working under a three-year, $156,700 contract to continue looking for revenue for the airport. Forecast’s projections show the number of people flying out of Bellingham this June and July could be as much as 35 percent lower than those months last year.

The main impact comes from the loss of several flights in the past year, with Frontier stopping its nonstop service to Denver this summer, and Alaska Airlines shifting to seasonal service this year for nonstop flights from Bellingham to Las Vegas and Honolulu.

“During the summer months we’re going to be hardest hit with Alaska reducing their seat capacity in the Bellingham market, and then we expect that come fall, when some seasonal activity returns, we’ll have a substantially lower reduction rate,” Zenk said.

A weaker Canadian dollar has fueled some of the decline in sales, since about 52 to 55 percent of people flying out of Bellingham are Canadian. At the same time, competition between Delta and Alaska for space at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has caused Alaska to pull back a lot of its flights from exterior or smaller airports, Zenk said.

For the first quarter of this year, the airport’s revenue came in about $75,000 short of budget, with $1.9 million coming in from January through March, said Tamara Sobjack, director of finance at the port. That was partly due to decreased income from parking, since fewer passengers were using the airport.

However the airport was still doing better than what it had budgeted for, because its expenses came in about $140,000 lower than expected for the first part of the year.

In general, airport staff members continue to market new flights to airlines, and are keeping their eyes and ears open for other sources of revenue, Zenk said.

“There’s a demand in the Bellingham market, it’s just a matter of having any one of those airlines come in and take the risk to fly the destinations that will be profitable,” he said.

As for other forms of revenue, construction on a new Holiday Inn at the airport could start as early as this spring if the builder obtains permits from the county. The hotel wouldn’t pay rent to the port while under construction, but it is expected to be completed in fall 2016, when it would start paying more than $200,000 per year on its lease.

Also, a new program that allows companies to advertise in the airport has brought in $5,000 so far this year, Sobjack said, which is all profit that was not expected in the budget.