BELLINGHAM – For those who say Paine Field should be expanded so they don’t have to fight traffic to get to Sea-Tac Airport, there is another choice.
They can drive an hour north, rather than an hour south, and take a flight to hubs in Las Vegas or Salt Lake City from Bellingham International Airport.
“We get a lot of people coming up from Snohomish County,” said Art Choat, the airport’s aviation director.
Choat doesn’t have detailed figures but gets a general, verbal update from the airlines, he said. The airport had 104,000 passenger boardings last year.
On June 8, Delta Air Lines began twice daily round-trip flights between Bellingham and Salt Lake City. Allegiant Air has been running a once daily flight, six days a week, between Bellingham and Las Vegas since August 2004.
The two airlines join Horizon, which has been operating commuter flights to Seattle for 14 years.
The Las Vegas and Salt Lake City flights are exactly the type of service that proponents of air passenger service at Paine Field say would be successful at the Snohomish County-run airport.
In Bellingham, security lines are short, check-ins are quick and traffic is light.
“You can park right there and walk 60 feet across the driveway to the terminal,” said Doug Thomas, president and CEO of Bellingham Cold Storage.
The commercial airline service in Bellingham appears to be a “very successful business model to follow and one that an airline might duplicate at Paine Field to get the skids greased there,” said Tom Hoban, president and CEO of Coast Real Estate Services of Everett.
Hoban, who supports commercial service at Paine Field, serves on a Snohomish County committee reviewing the airport’s future.
The Las Vegas flights tend to run about 90 percent full, Choat said.
Salt Lake City flights have so far ranged from about half to completely full, Choat said.
The Bellingham flights are popular with travelers from Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties, and with British Columbians, Choat said.
Officials with the Port of Bellingham, which operates the airport, actively recruited the airlines and are looking for more, Choat said. The community is overwhelmingly supportive, he said.
“It’s a really nice service here for the Whatcom County businesspeople who fly east and south,” Thomas said. Travelers can easily connect from Salt Lake City and Las Vegas to other destinations, he said.
In wooing Delta, airport officials used a survey of businesses by the Bellingham-Whatcom Chamber of Commerce that showed strong support for passenger air service, Choat said.
The only grumbles he hears are from some who say, “You’re changing Whatcom County, you’re making us so accessible we’re not going to be the same anymore,” Choat said.
The airport’s single runway is big enough for regular use by 727s, but it has handled planes as large as a 757 before, he said.
By comparison, Paine Field has a runway capable of handling 747s, which are serviced and built at Boeing’s adjoining factory.
Newer, quieter planes have reduced noise around the Bellingham airport, Choat said.
Delta uses 50-passenger Bombardier CRJ-200 jets to service Bellingham. Allegiant Air flies 150-passenger MD-80s and Horizon uses the Dash 8 Q-200.
Last year, the airport received a total of 10 noise complaints, Choat said.
Eight of the complaints were prompted by smaller aircraft and only two by commercial flights, he said.
The area around the airport, located northwest of the city, is surrounded by scattered homes and open space. The southern end of the north-south runway is close to Bellingham Bay.
Paine Field, by contrast, is well developed on all sides, said Greg Hauth, vice president of Save Our Communities.
The Mukilteo-based group opposes Paine Field expansion and believes that neighborhoods around the airport would suffer from the additional noise and traffic.
One of Bellingham’s biggest selling points for airlines is I-5 congestion from Marysville south, Choat said. That’s helped more airlines consider Bellingham for commercial flights, he said.
But freeway and mass transit work planned for Snohomish County eventually will ease that problem, making Sea-Tac easier to get to, Hauth said.
Yet if Bellingham could be successful, Paine Field, with more people living closer, could do even better, Hoban said. A 2002 Snohomish County economic development study suggested regional flights could be successful at Paine Field.
But “if you discourage commercial passenger service, (the airlines) aren’t going to show up at all,” he said.
Tyri Squyres, spokeswoman for Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air, said the airline tends to go where they’re wanted.
“It makes a major difference,” she said. “When the community’s supportive, we definitely have a much quicker entry into the market. That is definitely something we look at.”