November 5, 2021
Southwest Airlines lands in Bellingham as Canadians welcomed back to the U.S.
Ralph Schwartz

Arrivals at Bellingham International Airport will soon include Southwest Airlines flights — days before the U.S.-Canada border is set to reopen, facilitating a flow of additional potential passengers. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

November 5, 2021
Southwest Airlines lands in Bellingham as Canadians welcomed back to the U.S.
Ralph Schwartz

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Southwest Airlines, one of the four major airlines in North America, will begin offering flights to Oakland and Las Vegas from Bellingham’s airport on Sunday, Nov. 7.

The Port of Bellingham’s Director of Aviation Sunil Harman said that luring Southwest Airlines to Bellingham International Airport is a big deal and considers it “a personal success that I’ve been able to bring the airline here.” 

Something else is happening that qualifies as a big deal: One day after Southwest’s debut at Bellingham International, the United States will start allowing Canadians to cross the border for the first time in over a year and a half. 

This is a fortunate coincidence for Southwest Airlines and the airport. “We do expect Southwest customers from B.C. to be joining us and benefitting from not having to travel to Sea-Tac or Spokane, as our data shows they have previously,” a Southwest spokesperson told Salish Current in an email.

In normal pre-COVID times, Canadian passengers at the airport were taken for granted. Nearly half of the airport’s business would come from Canada in a good year, according to the Port of Bellingham’s website, because some Canadians prefer crossing a border checkpoint by vehicle to dealing with the Vancouver airport’s security around international flights. Harman said he couldn’t release specific numbers, but he did acknowledge that Canadian customers have already shown interest in Southwest’s arrival in Bellingham. 

Other major airlines at BLI

United operated in Bellingham until shortly after the 9/11 attacks dealt a blow to the entire airline industry. Delta stopped in Bellingham for little more than a cup of coffee, from 2006 to 2008. Harman, however, described the arrival of Southwest as “a story of an airline that has a corporate culture that aligns so closely with the Port of Bellingham’s … in their mission, vision and values, but also in the way they ascribe importance to the customer.” 

For both airline and airport, that commitment to customers includes keeping costs down. Like all typical airports, Bellingham International charges airlines a fee for every passenger it boards. Harman said the Port of Bellingham doesn’t let that fee exceed $3. Harman said Sea-Tac’s per-passenger fee is roughly 10 times more, and Bellingham’s rate is also far below Vancouver International Airport’s per-passenger fee to airlines, which includes a $25CA surcharge (about $20US) just for airport improvements. 

Airports charge airlines for landing as well as takeoff. Vancouver’s landing fee currently is 30% higher than Bellingham’s, accounting for the exchange rate.

Southwest, according Harman, said that Bellingham’s affordability enables the airline to serve Canadian customers without paying Canada’s high airport costs. According to Harman, Southwest told him that Bellingham is its beachhead into Canada and that they were committed to serving the Canadian market, but not from Canada. Asked by Salish Current about this “beachhead” approach to doing business with Canadians, Southwest chose not to comment.

Southwest may expand into Canada, after all. As Business Insider reported in April, airline executives told investors the carrier needed to upgrade its technology to handle Canadian currency but the airline was prioritizing its expansion of U.S. service. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said during the conference call with investors that the airline had its hands full simply adding new destinations within the U.S. in 2021 — Bellingham being one of them.

‘Will you honor your commitments?’ ‘Absolutely!’

Southwest Airlines has been stretched thin this year. Bad weather in Florida on Friday, Oct. 8, precipitated a wave of more than 2,000 flight cancelations that extended through the weekend to the following Monday. The problem cascaded because it originated in the state where almost half of the airline’s fleet lands every day. Southwest President and Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven explained in a blog post on Oct. 14 that planes and crews simply couldn’t get where they needed to go over the next few days.

The disruption was partly due to COVID-19, too. Southwest has been struggling through a worker shortage this year. As The New York Times reported, thousands of employees either left the company or went on long-term leave during the pandemic. Van de Ven said Southwest is actively hiring, with a goal of bringing on 5,000 new employees by the end of the year. The added staff should reduce the risk of a repeat of those cascading cancelations from October, according to Southwest officials.

Harman, Bellingham’s aviation director, noticed Southwest’s scheduling difficulties and asked the airline a question. “Are you confident you’re going to be able to meet your commitment with us?” he said he asked them. “And they reassured us, ‘Absolutely.'”

Southwest Airlines looks like it wants to stick around for a while —longer than Delta did about 15 years ago. Southwest is moving into 2,730 square feet of space at the airport and will pay most of the remodeling costs. The airline will get the space rent-free for the first two years but will bring an estimated $2 million annually to the airport and more later, if Southwest follows through with a plan to expand service from an initial three flights per day to as many as 10.

— Reported by Ralph Schwartz

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