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Southwest Airlines announces date and destinations it will begin service to Bellingham

The Bellingham Herald logoThe Bellingham Herald 6/10/2021 David Rasbach and Dave Gallagher, The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)

Jun. 10—Wanna get away from Bellingham's rain and cold this winter? Beginning Nov. 7, you can do just that and escape to the sunshine in California or Nevada.

Southwest Airlines on Thursday, June 10, announced that it will begin daily service to and from Bellingham International Airport one week after Halloween and its initial two destinations will be Las Vegas, Nevada, and Oakland, California.

"With this service pattern, customers traveling from nearly 40 airports across the Southwest network will be able to land closer to southern British Columbia, Canada," said a Southwest release.

According to the airline's route map, it currently offers nonstop service to 35 destinations from Oakland and 66 from Las Vegas.

Service initially is set to include once-daily flights between Bellingham and Las Vegas and twice-daily flights to and from Oakland, according to the release.

Tickets between Bellingham and those destinations are now available for purchase for as low as $39 one way at southwest.com, according to the release.

The Oakland and Las Vegas destinations are ones that Bellingham already offers through Allegiant Air, but there are advantages to having Southwest also fly to those places, said Sandy Ward, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism.

While the Allegiant model focuses on getting passengers to one vacation destination and offering hotel/car rental packages, Southwest offers quite a few connecting flights out of Oakland and Las Vegas, including luggage transfers. With its low fares, flights from Bellingham to Oakland to, say, Hawaii becomes another option to driving to Seattle for Hawaii flights, she said.

"We're thrilled to have Southwest here, it's such great news," Ward said.

Port Commissioner Michael Shepard agreed with Ward about the connecting flights, adding that Southwest offering flights every day out of Bellingham is also a big difference. He added that after such a rough year with the pandemic, he's expecting a bounce back in travelers with more flights being offered.

"There's a lot of pent-up demand for service out of Bellingham, so we'll continue to encourage Southwest Airlines, hoping that they will diversify the destinations," Shepard said.

The timing of Southwest's announcement comes as the U.S. and Canada work toward lifting pandemic restrictions at the border. If the border begins reopening in the coming weeks, Ward said, that would put Southwest in a good position to market the Bellingham airport to travelers in lower British Columbia for the fall flights.

Southwest first announced plans to begin service to Bellingham on March 8 in a letter to employees, but the date it would begin and which cities would be destinations wasn't released until Thursday.

The Southwest announcement is a tremendous economic boost "akin to igniting the afterburner of a jet engine," Sunil Harman, director of aviation for the Port of Bellingham, told The Bellingham Herald in March.

Like many U.S. airports dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, Bellingham had a huge drop in passenger traffic last year. A total of 99,673 passengers flew out of Bellingham, down from 343,628 in 2019.

The Bellingham airport hasn't recovered yet in 2021, although numbers are improving. According to data from the Port of Bellingham, 11,266 passengers flew out of Bellingham in May. That's much better than the May 2020 total of 882 when the pandemic restrictions were still in place, but still well behind the May 2019 total of 26,965 passengers.

Along with Southwest potentially boosting those passenger numbers in the fall, Ward said Bellingham could benefit from the "Southwest Effect," where airports see a boost in overall air travel as other airlines take notice and possibly offer more flights themselves.

"Our airport has the capacity to add even more flights; it depends on if the demand is here," Ward said.

Before the pandemic, the Bellingham airport was seeing less airport traffic as airlines shifted priorities and the nearby Paine Field airport in Everett began adding commercial flights. Bellingham's peak year for air traffic was in 2013, when nearly 600,000 passengers flew out of the airport.

Harman said Bellingham's airport could see a surge of passenger traffic the second half of 2021, but several key factors would have to fall into place: Vaccines continue to knock down the virus numbers, Southwest begins offering flights and restrictions are eased at the Canadian border.

Southwest joins Alaska Airlines and Allegiant Air at Bellingham International Airport. Alaska flies daily to Seattle/Tacoma, while Allegiant has nonstop service to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Palm Springs, Phoenix (Mesa), and San Diego.

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