Bellingham can teach Everett a thing or two about travel

Pssst — here’s news if you want to get out of here.

Frontier Airlines is about to add a daily flight to Denver. It won’t be from here, though. That would be impossible.

Paine Field, the airport owned by Snohomish County, has no commercial airline service. That’s a fact I have repeatedly complained about in this column. I know that Paine Field’s Mukilteo area neighbors couldn’t disagree with me more.

As our county awaits a Federal Aviation Administration ruling on whether airlines can come to Paine Field — we’ve been waiting more than a year — I won’t hold my breath.

Instead, I’ll look north. Leaders in Snohomish County should do the same.

On Thursday, the Port of Bellingham announced that Frontier Airlines would add, starting in May, seasonal service to Denver from Bellingham International Airport.

Airline service in Bellingham has grown significantly since 2006, when Herald reporter Bill Sheets wrote about the airport in Whatcom County. According to his article, 104,000 commercial passengers flew out of Bellingham in 2005.

By 2011, that number had grown to 511,756 passengers, according to Daniel Zenk, director of aviation for the Port of Bellingham.

If you don’t want to slog through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, there are plenty of choices from Bellingham, an hour’s drive away.

Frontier will be the third major airline offering services from Bellingham, joining Alaska Airlines and Allegiant Air.

Frontier’s Denver flights — a daily departure and arrival from May 24 to Sept. 16 — will be added to flights from Bellingham to Las Vegas; Phoenix-Mesa, Ariz.; Oakland, Palm Springs, Los Angeles and San Diego, Calif.; Honolulu and Seattle, according to Carolyn Casey, the Port of Bellingham’s director of external affairs. And on June 4, Zenk said, Alaska Airlines will add a seasonal flight to Portland, Ore.

There are no flights from Bellingham to Canada. “International” is part of the airport’s name only because it’s a U.S. Customs Port of Entry for general aviation — “the corporate jets,” Zenk said.

Zenk said the number of commercial flights fluctuates. “Right now we’re at 87 flights per week,” he said, adding that during the summer it grows to about 104 arrivals and departures each week.

With the boost in service, Bellingham International Airport’s facility is also growing.

“In June of 2011, we completed a new passenger gate holding area, a $9.5 million project,” Casey said.

That project, which adds a full-service restaurant, is part of a two-phase, $38 million expansion that will roughly triple the size of Bellingham’s airport terminal. Zenk said the 110,000-square-foot terminal will eventually have five gates.

In the past two years, the airport repaved its runway and taxi way and added parking, Casey said. “We’re working hard to keep pace with all of this,” Casey said. The improvements, she added, are being paid for through fees on passengers using the airport, not by Port of Bellingham taxpayers.

I asked Zenk if airport neighbors complain about noise or traffic. “People who are relatively close to the airport have been a little more vocal,” he said. Zenk acknowledged, too, that the airport is in a rural area, very different from upscale suburbs near Paine Field.

About two years ago, Zenk said, the Port of Bellingham hired a company to conduct a survey about airport growth. Questioning people throughout Whatcom County, the survey found that about 87 percent of respondents favored the expansion, he said.

“It’s a really positive thing happening here,” Zenk said.

I wonder how a Snohomish County vote or survey on airline service at Paine Field would turn out.

On Feb. 4, I was in the audience at Everett Performing Arts Center when writer Sherman Alexie spoke. The author of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” was in town for the Everett Public Library’s Everett Reads program.

He opened his talk with a quip that Everett folks must be ticked off because people merely drive past while traveling between Seattle and Bellingham. Alexie said he had zipped by Everett hundreds of times, but only stopped a few times.

We’re bigger, but Bellingham has a real university. Now, it has a rapidly growing airport. Those things mean traffic and noise, but also jobs.

Look five, 10 or 20 years down the road — or should I say up the road?

Will leaders here still be wringing hands? Will I still be waiting to catch a flight from Paine Field?

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,

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