I’m walking through one of the recently expanded parking lots at Bellingham International Airport. There’s hundreds of cars here, and it’s mostly full. Most of the cars and trucks have license plates from one place: British Columbia.
Here’s a Washington plate, but again: BC, BC, BC, Beautiful British Columbia, Beautiful British Columbia. The main way that this airport is an international airport is that most of its passengers drive here from another country.
Airport Announcer: “Welcome to Bellingham International Airport. Please report any unattended bags … ”
Zahir Dossa: “My name is Zahir Dossa. I’m from Ladner, British Columbia, just south of Vancouver. We’re flying to Vegas and for us, in Canada, with all the taxes and, you know, it’s much more reasonable to come through Bellingham.”
Bellingham’s airport is 20 miles from the Canadian border and a growing number of British Columbians have been flocking south of the border for Bellingham’s cheaper air fares.
John Ryan: “Is this something you do fairly often?”
Dossa: “This is my first time.”
Ryan: “And how did you find out about it?”
Dossa: “Oh, just, so many people do it, through friends and colleagues.”
Many passengers drive right past Vancouver International Airport, to catch flights like this one on Allegiant Airlines.
The low–cost airline specializes in buying old MD–80 jets. Daniel Zenk is in charge of aviation for the Port of Bellingham.
Zenk: “Their business model is to be low cost and efficient. They’ve chosen MD–80 model aircraft because of the inventory that was available. But it is a louder and a noisier aircraft.”
As Allegiant has added new destinations, its business at the Bellingham Airport has skyrocketed.
Zenk: “Absolutely. We’ve seen a lot of growth. We’ve expanded the terminal three times now. We’ve expanded our vehicle parking lots four times. The list goes on and on with the capital projects, just trying to keep up with the demand.”
Some of those projects are being paid for by passengers themselves through airline ticket fees and parking charges. The airport’s $30 million runway improvement came courtesy of the US taxpayer, through grants from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Zenk: “Canadians are spending a lot less and getting more for their dollar.”
Bellingham charges each departing passenger $4.50 to fund expansion of the main terminal. In May, Vancouver International boosted its airport improvement fee to $20 per passenger. That’s to pay for a major expansion at Canada’s second busiest airport.
Coast to coast, three out of four Canadians live within a 90–minute drive of the US border. Canadian airports say they’re losing $2 billion annually to a trend they call “passenger leakage” to the United States.
Rural neighbors of the once–sleepy Bellingham airport aren’t happy with the booming cross–border business. And the airport is planning for more growth.
Lisa Neulicht lives on agricultural land about four miles north of the Bellingham airport. She operates a small blueberry U–pick operation and works in a library. Jet noise is her nemesis.
Neulicht: “It is very invasive, and it changes the whole rural character of where I live. If we’re outside, you do have to stop your conversation. My issue, I think, is why is Allegiant being allowed to make profits and have their good deal by using louder airplanes? To me, it feels like we’re selling our community short. Like, why are we really that desperate?”
The Bellingham Airport expects more jet traffic in the months and years ahead. This fall, Allegiant Air is adding nonstop service to Hawaii. The airline’s website calls the airport “Bellingham/Vancouver.”
Airport critics have taken to calling it “Lower Vancouver International.” They say the airport owned by the Port of Bellingham should be putting the people of Whatcom County first, not a Las Vegas–based airline like Allegiant or passengers from another country.
Daniel Zenk with the Port of Bellingham says Whatcom County residents benefit from living next to a major Canadian market.
Zenk: “Because they can afford cheaper flights and go to the destinations that they want to go to.”
Zenk says Allegiant Airlines is no longer buying the old MD–80s. In addition to being noisier, the MD–80s are gas guzzlers, and they’ve been giving Allegiant some mechanical trouble lately. Since the start of the year, the Bellingham Herald has reported four emergency landings or groundings of Allegiant’s Bellingham flights.
I’m John Ryan, KUOW News.