Southwest Airlines announced Bellingham as one of three new flight destinations for 2021 on March 8.
“[The destinations are] three very different and appealing locations to both serve our existing customers and places where we feel Southwest can make a real difference for local travelers,” Kelly said.
This announcement comes as Washington State undertakes the vaccination campaign for its residents and prepares to reopen its economy. Before the pandemic, tourism represented a lifeline for businesses and jobs in the area.
In 2019, over three million visitors came to Bellingham and Whatcom County, supporting 7,443 jobs with a payroll of $244.9 million, according to Economic Impacts of Visitors in Washington State, compiled by the national travel research firm Tourism Economics for the Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA).
Michael Hogan, public affairs administrator for the Port of Bellingham, said the expected volume of incoming travelers is still unknown at this time, as the port awaits the first flight schedules from Southwest.
“Bellingham International Airport (BLI) is currently averaging four flights per day,” Hogan said. “Which is down 75% due to the impacts of Covid-19 and the closure of the US/Canada border to non-essential travel.”
The travel and tourism industry in Bellingham has suffered from the consequences of the pandemic, following a state-wide and national trend.
In April 2020, Seattle Tacoma International Airport experienced a decrease of 93.6% in passenger volume, compared to the previous year. International traffic decreased 97.1% and domestic traffic decreased 93.1% according to Economic Impacts of Visitors in Washington State.
Penny Clark, owner of Travel Time of Everett Inc., a travel agency near Bellingham, said it is going to take time before travel recovers from the effects of COVID-19.
“It’s going to take at least one or two years for the travel industry to regroup,” Clark said. “Even with reopening, it’s going to take time before the numbers ramp up to those of 2019.”
Nonetheless, the anticipated reignition of travel in the area announces better times for the region’s economic functioning.
“The Bellingham airport is really nice, cheap and convenient, it’s larger than the one in Everett, and it only takes about twenty to thirty minutes to cross all the checkpoints,” Clark said. “I think more and more passengers will opt for Bellingham rather than fly through SEA-TAC, where it takes two hours to cross security and all that.”
Port Commission President Ken Bell said in a press release that Southwest’s daily flights will deliver frequent and reliable value service to the whole community.
“We thank Southwest for making a significant commitment to our region and seeing the value in this market,” Bell said. “This will greatly improve our ability to serve the economic needs of Whatcom County and the surrounding region.”
Whatcom County ranks fifth in travel spending in Washington State behind King, Pierce, Spokane and Snohomish Counties. The most recent data compiled by Tourism Economics for the Washington Tourism Alliance and WSDMO shows travel spending in Whatcom County represented over $555 million in 2019.
Aside from the economic boost renewed travel will bring to Bellingham, many look to the city’s potential for harboring a new travel hub in the Pacific Northwest.
“Southwest service in Bellingham positions us just south of metro Vancouver, British Columbia,” Kelly said. “Following the reopening of the Canadian border, we expect a return of the value-minded travelers who already drive to this alternative airport to escape high fares and taxes.”
While Bellingham International Airport remains a small infrastructure compared to other regional airports, prospects of expansion are not off the table.
“The port markets BLI as the low-cost alternative to Vancouver International Airport and a gateway to British Columbia,” Hogan said. “The airport is classified as a non-hub but could certainly grow in the role of a small hub serving a design capacity of 3.2 million origin-destination passengers annually.”
Hogan said the Port of Bellingham is looking to keep expanding and reaching out to more airline companies.
“The Port is in continual communication with the airline industry to serve the design capacity of its eight gate, 105,000 square feet commercial terminal,” Hogan said.
Flight paths and schedules from Southwest Airlines are still to be announced.
Cliff Heberden is a journalism student and reporter for The Front. His work focuses on local news and coverage of ongoing issues and legislation. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.