Small US Airports Attracting Bargain-Hunting Canadians

The World
Foreigners crossing into the United States are fueling the U.S. economy and upsetting some border state residents in the process. But these aren't illegal immigrants, and the border isn't with Mexico. All along the U.S.-Canada border, small airports are humming with business from bargain-hunting Canadians. They're driving across the border for cheaper American airfares. In the recently expanded parking lots at Bellingham International Airport, there are hundreds of cars, most with license plates from one place: British Columbia. Bellingham has no scheduled international flights. The main way this "international" airport lives up to its name is that most of its passengers drive here from another country. Zahir Dossa is here from Ladner, British Columbia, just south of Vancouver. He's flying to Las Vegas today. "For us in Canada, with all the taxes and, you know, it's much more reasonable to come through Bellingham," Dossa said. Coast to coast, millions of Canadians flock each year to airports just south of the border. The airport in Plattsburgh, New York, bills itself as "l'aeroport americain de Montreal," – Montreal's U.S. airport. It's about an hour's drive from Montreal. Five out of six Plattsburgh passengers are Canadian, and the airport has gone bilingual to serve its Quebecois passengers. Most of Bellingham's passengers are Canadian, too, like Dennis Linton of Langley, B.C., who drove 30 miles across the border for his flight to Vegas. "There is a significant cost savings for us to actually come to the likes of Bellingham airport rather than flying out of our Vancouver International," Linton said. How much? "I'd say it was in the neighborhood of about 35-40 percent. It actually is quite a significant savings." Thanks to the influx of Canadians, Bellingham's airport has nearly quadrupled its business in the past five years. It's a sharp contrast with the rest of the United States where air travel peaked in 2007. "We've expanded the terminal three times now," said Daniel Zenk, who manages the Bellingham airport. "We've expanded our vehicle parking lots four times, just trying to keep up with the demand." The number-one airline in Bellingham and Plattsburgh is Allegiant Air. The low-cost carrier's business model revolves around buying old MD-80 jets. MD-80s are cheap, but Daniel Zenk admits they have their downsides. "The MD-80 is a louder and a noisier aircraft," he said. Rural neighbors of the formerly sleepy Bellingham airport aren't so happy with the booming cross-border business over their heads. "I call it LVI – Lower Vancouver International – because that's the predominant use of the airport. It has really outgrown totally the use by our region," said Steve Bacon, who lives about six miles north of the airport, surrounded by dairy and berry farms. "The airport would not be at its current size or undergoing its current expansion plans if not for the Canadian use of it." And it's all generating a lot of noise, said Lisa Neulicht, a librarian who lives north of Bellingham. "It changes the whole rural character of where I live," Neulicht said. "It feels like we're selling our community short, like why are we really that desperate." Canadian airports don't like the trend either. They say Canada's losing $2 billion a year to "passenger leakage." Daniel-Robert Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council, said the problem is that Canada's air travelers are expected to pay for airport improvements through taxes and fees. "We have taken an approach in Canada to aviation that's different from the U.S. and other parts of the world," Gooch said. "We don't subsidize airports in the way that takes place in the U.S. and other parts of the world, so we see the users paying 100 percent of the costs." A June 5th report from the Canadian Senate echoed those concerns, arguing that Canada's airports need tax breaks to compete with their subsidized neighbors to the south. Airline passengers in the U.S. do pay fees to support airport infrastructure. But U.S. taxpayers pick up the tab for other improvements – like a $30 million dollar upgrade to the Bellingham airport runway.