Bellingham airport adjusts to less traffic

Construction crews work on a new Holiday Inn across the street from Bellingham International Airport on Friday, Jan. 15, in Bellingham. The 153-room hotel is expected to be completed later this year.
Construction crews work on a new Holiday Inn across the street from Bellingham International Airport on Friday, Jan. 15, in Bellingham. The 153-room hotel is expected to be completed later this year. eabell@bhamherald.com

A weaker Canadian dollar will probably mean less traffic at Bellingham International Airport this year, something Port of Bellingham officials are addressing.

Port officials have been looking at ways to adjust as fewer British Columbia residents fly out of the airport, including reductions in the airport’s operating budget, deferring planned capital expenditures, and increasing marketing support for existing airlines, said Sunil Harman, the port’s new aviation director. Harman took over the position in November 2015, replacing Dan Zenk.

With the loonie hovering around 69 cents compared to the U.S. dollar and a forecast that it could get as low as 59 cents by the end of 2016, it now costs significantly more for Canadians to vacation in the U.S. Fewer are expected to take trips to places like Las Vegas and Hawaii and instead plan trips within Canada or go to Mexico.

When the Canadian dollar was near par with the U.S. dollar, Canadians typically outnumbered local residents flying out of the airport.

Last year was a period of fewer available flights and a weaker Canadian dollar, and it showed in the year-end passenger numbers. According to the port, 455,294 people flew out of the Bellingham airport in 2015, down 16.3 percent compared to the previous year.

Landing an airline route east from Bellingham to places like Denver, Dallas or Salt Lake City, remains a priority, but isn’t likely in the near future.

The two main commercial airlines flying out of Bellingham — Alaska Airlines and Allegiant Air — are maintaining their current winter flight schedules. Allegiant has offered a variety of deals this winter, including tickets as low as $49 to Las Vegas. Other destinations by the two airlines out of Bellingham include Hawaii, Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, Portland, Phoenix and Palm Springs.

The port continues to talk to airlines about setting up other routes out of Bellingham, including west-to-east destinations, a longtime popular request by local residents.

The weak Canadian dollar hurts those chances, along with the recent airline industry trend of pulling back from medium- and small-size airports back into the large hubs such as Sea-Tac airport, Harman said. The significant drop in gasoline prices has also prompted potential passengers to drive farther rather than fly out of the smaller airports, he said.

Getting a west-east route to places like Denver, Dallas or Salt Lake City remains a high priority for the port when it talks to airlines, and it could happen as airlines continue to reposition themselves, but probably not in the near future, Harman said.

Despite the slowdown, work continues on other projects. A new 153-room Holiday Inn hotel near the airport is expected to be completed later this year, offering about 7,500 square feet of conference space and other amenities. Harmon said the convenience of a fly-in/fly-out hotel with conference rooms should help the business traveler market in Bellingham.

The port is also working on a marketing campaign with airlines on vacation packages to lure customers, and will be unveiling its first “art in public places” exhibit in March.

The slowdown in airport traffic came soon after the port completed a multi-year, $38 million remodel and expansion project at the facility. Bonds were taken out for the project, and are partially paid back through user fees, including parking. The port is meeting those obligations despite fewer passengers flying out of the airport.

“The cyclical passenger-demand fluctuations are factored in repayment obligations,” Harman said.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz