News Local

Bellingham booming from Canadian border rush

By Tyler Orton, 24 Hours Vancouver

More Vancouverites are abandoning YVR (pictured) to fly out of Bellingham airport south of the border. (CARMINE MARINELLI/24 HOURS)

More Vancouverites are abandoning YVR (pictured) to fly out of Bellingham airport south of the border. (CARMINE MARINELLI/24 HOURS)

Bellingham International Airport isn't only scooping up passengers going to and from Vancouver - the facility's ongoing expansion has also attracted a B.C. business eager to cash in on nearly one million Canadian flyers.

Last month, the Vancouver-based Browns Restaurant Group expanded its U.S. operation when it opened a Scotty Browns franchise outlet just past the security gates at the Washington State airport. The opening, the second outlet for the company in the border city, comes after a March report by the Canadian Airports Council that noted Vancouver International Airport was losing 950,000 passengers annually to Seattle and Bellingham airports.

The study determined Canadians accounted for 62% of passengers passing through Bellingham - a figure in line with the patronage at the Scotty Browns airport location, according to corporate spokesman Mark Majewski.

"I get (Vancouverites) texting me and emailing people all the time saying, 'Oh, wow. You're in Bellingham at the airport. That's so cool.'"

The restaurant opening is just one part of the airport's ongoing expansion.

Daniel Zenk, the facility's aviation director, notes the airport has experienced 25-30% year-over-year growth in each of the last six years.

"Honestly, without . Canadians using the airport, Bellingham wouldn't be as viable and wouldn't be growing as fast as we are."

While cheaper airfares and increasing airport fees in Vancouver have driven more and more travellers south of the border, one local posting on the review website Yelp summed up the thoughts of many. "If I can fly out of here, to save some money and avoid the hassle in Vancouver YVR airport, I certainly will," the poster wrote.

"The parking is pretty cheap here, it won't cost you an arm or leg."

YVR has come under fire recently for a 33% increase in its improvement fee. On May 1, the levy was boosted to $20 from $15 for passengers departing the airport for destinations outside B.C. and the Yukon. It will help fund $1.8-billion in improvements.

When British billionaire Richard Branson arrived in the city last month to launch Virgin Atlantic's London to Vancouver route, YVR president Larry Berg told 24 hours the cost of aviation for regional airlines is simply cheaper in the U.S. compared to Canada, which is why the airport is losing domestic passengers.

But just as Canadians are flying out of Bellingham for less expensive regional flights, Berg noted YVR is able to attract passengers from Washington State and California for cheaper long-distance trips around the world.