Thursday, March 30, 2023
March 30, 2023

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Bellingham International Airport is B.C.’s low-cost alternative

Over last 12 years, 65% of Northwest Washington airport’s customers have been Canadian


Bellingham International Airport’s main customers aren’t people who live in Bellingham. They’re Canadians.

Over a 12-year period, Canadians have made up 65 percent of Bellingham International Airport’s (BLI) customer base, said Sunil Harman, director of aviation at the Port of Bellingham. While COVID-19 travel restrictions prompted low demand for travel from Canadians in the first quarter of 2022, Harman said, the demand was high the rest of the year.

“If we had had the full numbers with normal Canadian demand in the first quarter of ’22, we would have probably seen something better than 65 percent,” Harman said. The final figure for 2022 came in at about 62 percent Canadian customers.

Proximity to the border and low fares — $134 on average, based on numbers from the third quarter of 2022 — make the airport particularly attractive to Canadians hoping to fly into the United States.

“It’s an issue of market dynamics,” Harman said. “The U.S. customer is a much smaller proportion of the overall number of customers that are within a 90-minute drive to this airport. The Canadian demand, in terms of population and propensity to travel, is much higher. So, we get a higher proportionate number of travelers from Canada.”

The exchange rate also hasn’t appeared to impact Canadians who intend to travel significantly. Last year, the U.S. dollar hit a 20-year high, but Harman said the attraction of the low fares means that the exchange rate “really has no relevance.”

Harman characterized BLI as “British Columbia’s low-cost airport to the United States and points beyond.”

When asked about how Vancouver (B.C.) International Airport (YVR) views competition from BLI, a YVR spokesperson said the airport monitors BLI’s airline offerings as it does “with all other nearby airports.”

“We recognize travelers in our region have a number of options for travel and may choose to fly out of BLI for a variety of reasons,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement. “At YVR, as we build back to passenger levels seen in 2019, the connectivity of our domestic and international networks is our strength and helps us serve our purpose of serving the community and the economy that supports.”

Harman said BLI’s advantage — in comparison to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and YVR — is that those airports have constraints due to a “lot of airlines vying for gates.”

BLI has the space to expand. Harman said its eight gates will allow the airport to serve four times the volume it serves today, with a goal of serving its capacity of 1.2 million passengers in about a decade.

Harman is confident this kind of expansion is possible, saying he expects airlines to see BLI as the go-to place for airlines to expand service in the Pacific Northwest.

“Where else would they go?” he said. “If you want to serve this region, what options do you have? At some point, airlines — other than the ones that are already here — are going to realize that if they want to continue growing in this region, they have to go where there is a surplus of capacity. And that capacity right now resides at BLI, (with) a cost structure that competes on a national and international level.”