Elbow Room Needed at Bellingham Airport in Wash.

Oct. 18--Dramatic growth in airline service at Bellingham International Airport will require major terminal expansion projects in the next few years, Port of Bellingham commissioners learned Tuesday.

Art Choat, the port's aviation director, said the addition of Delta Air Lines service, and expanded service by Horizon Air and Allegiant, will likely bring the total number of departing passengers for 2006 to 130,000 -- up from about 99,000 in 2005. As recently as 2003, the total was under 64,000.

At 130,000 passengers per year, air passenger volume out of Bellingham would be back near its peak in the 1980s, when newly deregulated airlines were looking for new markets and Alaska Airlines and USAir offered 150-passenger jet service from Bellingham to Seattle. Terminal space requirements were less in those days because security procedures were far less elaborate, Choat said.

But even more growth is on the horizon -- no pun intended. Horizon Air and Allegiant Air have already announced plans to add capacity on Bellingham routes for next year. Choat said he expects Delta Air Lines will do the same, since the airline's existing Salt Lake City flights have been 90 percent full.

By next April, with more flights and bigger planes in place, Choat estimates that close to 20,000 commercial air passengers a month will be flying out of Bellingham, a rate that would mean about 240,000 annual departures if maintained for a full year.

To handle the increased traffic, the airport needs about 3,600 square feet of extra space as soon as possible, Choat said. He plans to provide that space by installing a modular building, at a cost of about $288,000. The module will provide seating for 225 passengers who have cleared security and are awaiting flights, and will include restrooms.

The Transportation Security Administration also expects to add a new baggage X-ray machine in Bellingham soon, Choat said.

At present, TSA screeners inspect checked baggage by hand and can clear about 60 bags per hour, Choat said. The machine is expected to double that rate.

Still more terminal expansion would be needed if a new carrier wants to do business here, Choat said. A startup company, Western Air Lines, has announced its intention to do just that, when and if it gets its operation off the ground.

Port Commissioner Doug Smith expressed nervousness about investing too much money in accommodating the sudden growth in airline activity here. He noted that the bustle of the 1980s vanished almost as quickly as it materialized.

Port Executive Director Jim Darling told commissioners that Bellingham has been the beneficiary of a shift in the airline industry, in which air carriers are using a new class of smaller regional jets to do business in smaller airports where their costs are less than in congested hubs like SeaTac International Airport.

Darling said he is proposing $200,000 in the port's 2007 budget to study the airport's needs. It would be the first step in a terminal expansion project that would go through the design and permitting process in 2008, with construction beginning in 2009, to be completed in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.

Choat and Darling had no firm estimates on what such an expansion project would cost, but Choat did have an outline of likely funding sources. About $6 million would likely be available from per-passenger fees included in airline tickets, plus Federal Aviation Administration grants, Choat said.

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