Bellingham Int'l Adds Gates & Triples Terminal Size to Serve Canadian-Fueled Growth

Robert Nordstrom
Published in: 

Like many U.S. airports scattered along the Canadian border, Bellingham International Airport (BLI) in Washington has faced interesting challenges presented by a growing influx of Canadian travelers who cross the border for less expensive U.S. airfares. A $38.5 million expansion project that ended in February, however, seems to be just the tonic it needed.


Project: Terminal & Gate Expansion
Location: Bellingham (WA) Int’l Airport
Owner & Operator: Port of Bellingham
Cost: $38.5 million
Funding: Airport Revenue Bonds
Design & Engineering: URS Corp.
Project Management: Port of Bellingham
Architect of Record: Zervas Group Architects
Airside Gate Lobbies General Contractor: Tiger Construction
Terminal General Contractor: Dawson Construction
Structural Engineer: Kingworks Consulting Engineers
Structural Systems Planning: Magnusson Klemencic Assoc.
Electrical Engineer: K Engineers
Plumbing & Fire Protection Engineer: Rice Group
Cost Estimator: Project Dimensions
Civil Engineering: Pacific Surveying & Engineering
Soils Engineer: GeoEngineers Inc.
Special Inspections/Testing: GeoTest Services
Resident Engineer: GMCM Construction Management
Baggage Conveyors & Makeup Piers: GlidePath
Passenger Processing System: Extended Airline System Environment, by AirIT
Local Departure Control System: AirIT
Airport Operational Database/Resource Mgt. System: AirIT
Electronic Flight Info Display System Hardware & Software Implementation: AirIT
MAP Printers: VidTroniX
Signage & Wayfinding Design: Jon Bentz Design
Revolving/Sliding Door: Boon Edam
Roofing: Magna-Loc 
Exterior Siding: AEP Span; Laminators Inc.; Dri-Design Wall Panels
Interior Ceiling: 9 Wood; Snap-Tex
Carpet: Shaw Floors
Interior Wall Treatments: Pental Granite & Marble; Eldorado Stone; Kawneer North America; Kalwall
Restroom Products: Metpar Corp.; Bobrick

Airport Director Daniel Zenk reports 20% to 25% growth in annual enplanements at BLI for the past 10 years — and more than half of current enplanements are Canadian travelers. While such growth is exhilarating, it also places enormous stresses on infrastructure and customer services. How will the airport meet the growing needs of travelers and airlines? How do airport officials develop long-term plans to meet those needs?

BLI is confronting such challenges head on. In 2010, the airport reconstructed its single 6,700-foot-by-150-foot runway and taxiway (see Airport Improvement, Nov./Dec. 2010). More recently, it upgraded ramps from asphalt to concrete to accommodate larger aircraft, increased its number of parking positions from five to nine, added deicing containment on the north and south ends of the commercial ramp and expanded its terminal threefold.

The Port of Bellingham, which operates BLI and is overseen by three elected commissioners, had to decide whether to fund the recently completed expansion effort in a fiscally conservative pay-as-you-go manner or borrow funds to expedite improvements. Because the pay-as-you-go approach would have left the terminal under construction for nearly a decade, the Port Commission voted to borrow $38.5 million through airport revenue bonds to abbreviate construction to three years and two phases.

Phase 1, which ended in June 2011, quadrupled the size of BLI’s previous two-gate boarding area to 20,000 square feet and added three gates. In Phase 2, completed in February 2014, BLI’s terminal size increased from 27,000 square feet to 104,000 square feet.

“We expanded all functional areas, including Ticketing, baggage makeup and claim areas and TSA screening,” Zenk reports. “We added new family-friendly restrooms; an animal relief area; free Wi-Fi throughout the terminal; a full-service airside restaurant, Scotty Browns, which we never had room for in the old terminal; and a smaller concession called Halibut Henry’s, offering grab-and-go food and gift items.”

Maintaining Operations

Zervas Architects worked to keep the airport operational and facilitate the flow of passengers through the terminal and gates while maintaining workspaces for employees and terminal tenants during the massive terminal expansion.

“TSA had their requirements, the airlines had their requirements, and then there are building code considerations such as maintaining safe passageways and fire ratings,” relates Terry Brown, president of the project’s architect of record. “There are a lot of competing interests, especially for an airport like Bellingham that is moving from a rather unsophisticated bag-flight rural airport with simple systems and two ticket counters to a modern facility with up to 20 ticket counters.”

The architectural and design team made a fortuitous breakthrough early in the planning process when it learned that in the Bellingham area, transportation facilities share building code requirements with open malls. By using sprinklers and noncombustible construction materials, the team was able to ease construction planning and phasing considerably.

“Rather than having to subdivide construction into small compartments, we were able to open everything up without having to worry about segregating the building into small fire zone compartments,” Brown explains. “It really simplified things from a construction standpoint; and even more important, it was a big cost savings. We were able to target funds to serve travelers rather than spending money on fire separation walls without sacrificing public safety.”

Construction work began on both ends of the terminal and worked inward toward the central core of the building. The once overcrowded baggage claim area is now four times larger at 8,400 square feet. In 2000, BLI had 50 feet of bag slide. Today, travelers claim baggage from 450 feet of rotating conveyor in a more spacious, high-ceilinged lobby. A new checked baggage system inspects, sorts and transports baggage from check-in to aircraft loading.

The size of the ticketing lobby increased threefold, with space for 20 ticketing stations. A shared-use passenger processing system, provided by AirIT, gives airlines the flexibility to increase or decrease their number of workstations based on flight schedule demands. This allows the airport to build fewer overall workstations while accommodating the fluctuating customer demand that is standard in the industry. AirIT’s Extended Airline System Environment (EASE™) is a “virtualized open technology that enables each airline to operate in its native passenger processing environment seamlessly, at a much lower cost than alternative common-use technologies,” explains AirIT President and Chief Operating Officer Chris Keller. 

The expansion also included directional signage leading visitors to the airport and digital displays to guide them to available parking spaces.

Building for the Future

URS worked to ensure that the design of the boarding gate and terminal facilities will be able to accommodate change and expansion. “We had to be generous when sizing some of the central spaces, knowing that growth will occur and these spaces will experience increased demands,” explains Rob Ohm, the firm’s manager of aviation architectural services. “We oversized electrical and mechanical rooms so we would be prepared for installing more panels and equipment. On the airside gate lobbies, the design accommodates growth in both directions parallel to the runway. Similarly, the landside ticket lobby and baggage claim area are designed for the possibility of future expansion.”
Installing the new baggage screening system while maintaining existing operations was particularly challenging. Makeup operations had to be moved to airside tents, and designers created a temporary pathway to move bags out of the screening area.

Jon Tesarik, project manager for Dawson Construction, describes the learning process involved when working at an operational airport: “It took a lot of collaboration and teamwork. The airport management coached us and walked us through the airport operations.”

Security was the most challenging aspect, he recalls. “Generally, we build 8-foot temporary walls to protect the public,” says Tesarik. “At the airport, we had to take the wall all the way up to the ceiling to prevent someone from passing an object over the wall. When we were working on the new deplaning hallway, we maintained security by routing passengers through a back hallway used by employees rather than constructing temporary walls.”

Ohm credits Adam Fulton, a senior project manager with the Port, for much of the project’s smooth transitions and success. “His interest in minimizing tenant and passenger inconveniences while allowing the contractor an efficient construction process resulted in stakeholder satisfaction throughout the course of the project,” explains Ohm. “Traditionally, in planning and design, we consider issues like scope, schedule and budget. When we talk about buildings, we talk about physical solutions that have length, width and height dimensions. At (BLI), we had to consider the fourth dimension of time.”

Evolving Needs

Strategy was also key, notes Ohm: “If you start with too narrow of a focus, you paint yourself into a corner. We’ve tried to remain in a master planning mode: What’s my next three or four steps beyond what I’m doing today? How do we make sure what we’re doing today doesn’t put up design roadblocks a few years from now? The trick is not to put something in the way that will incur unnecessary expenses down the road.”

URS has seen design challenges change dramatically during the past 14 years it has worked with BLI. In 2000, the airport recorded 94,000 enplaned passengers and projected modest growth; and the number dropped to a post-9/11 low of 63,800 in 2003. Prior to 2004, Horizon Air was the only airline at BLI, and it only served Seattle. Since then, enplanements have increased to 595,000 in 2013, and four airlines — Allegiant Air, Alaska Airlines, Horizon Air and Frontier Airlines — now offer flights to destinations such as Palm Springs, Phoenix, San Diego, Denver, Las Vegas, Honolulu and others. In the past nine years, the airport has experienced a 500% increase in enplanements.

The prime reason for BLI’s dramatic growth? Canadian travelers looking for a deal. Approximately 5 million Canadians travel to the United States to secure less expensive airfares, notes a study by The Conference Board of Canada. Located just 25 miles south of the border, BLI certainly gets its share.
A 2012 Canadian Airports Council study found that a family of four traveling to Hawaii saved $1,300 round trip by flying out of BLI rather than Vancouver International Airport (YVR).

The fees add up, Zenk explains: “The cost to fly out of Vancouver is somewhere around $22 per enplaned passenger. Then there’s the GST (goods and services tax) and HST (harmonized sales tax). Plus, the U.S. Customs fee for flights into the U.S. is $50 per person — $100 round trip. Canadian travelers flying out of BLI pay $3 per enplaned passenger. They pay a $4.50 passenger facility charge, which is the same as in Canada, a security tax and that’s it. By driving across the border, they also save the $50 per person U.S. Customs fee. And parking and gas is cheaper as well.”

BLI’s subsequent growth has had a significant economic impact on its community. Construction of a new four-story, 150-room Holiday Inn breaks ground on airport property in March 2014 and is scheduled for completion in July 2015. Nearby, four other new hotels have either already been completed or are currently under construction.

Employment in businesses and airlines associated with the airport is up 61% in the last five years, to more than 700 people. And according to the Port’s 2013 economic impact study, BLI brought $70.3 million into the community.

Long-term projections suggest a plateauing in enplanement growth, Zenk informs. Nevertheless, he elaborates, “I believe our market is still underserved and there is great potential for more eastbound-westbound airline routes. We anticipate that over the next 20 years, we will be expanding the terminal further to the south and adding more gate space, terminal lobby space and vehicle parking. We have land to the south where we can move some of our general aviation hangars, and we are looking at possibly relocating our air traffic control tower.”


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