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Millions of Canadians choosing U.S. airport options

June 18, 2012, Vancouver - Cloverdale resident Scott Henning has flown out of Bellingham's airport to Las Vegas twice - each time with a group of six friends. He has saved a lot of money travelling through BLI over YVR, and he plans to do it again at the end of the summer. The cheapest flights out of Vancouver that Henning could find were $630; from Bellingham he paid $230.


June 18, 2012
By Tracy Sherlock the Vancouver Sun

"You can get it even cheaper," Henning said. "And the package deals – they're not even comparable."

 

Henning
is not alone. A Senate committee report on airports – The Future of
Canadian Air Travel: Toll Booth or Spark Plug – says that millions of
Canadians are opting to drive across the line to take advantage of
cheaper flights. About 950,000 Canadian passengers use Bellingham and
Seattle airports instead of YVR each year, according to a report
prepared by the Canadian Airports Council in March.

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Canadian
airports are losing 4.5 million Canadian passengers to airports just
across the line, which has the Senate committee report calling for the
establishment of a national air travel strategy, and an end to the
practice of charging airports ground rent.

 

Senator Dennis Dawson
is chair of the senate committee that wrote the report, and he says
Canada is losing $1 billion a year in air travel alone from Canadians
who choose to travel out of U.S. airports.

 

He says it's quite
natural for people to look for the best deal, and that a family of four
could save as much as $1,000 by flying out of the United States because
the Americans subsidize their airports while the Canadians charge them
rent and expect users to cover costs like security and air traffic
control.

 

"The Government of Canada should stop treating airports as a source of public revenue," Dawson said.

People
flying out of Canadian airports often pay 60 and 75 per cent above the
airline's base fare to cover taxes and charges, compared to between 10
and 18 per cent in the U.S., the senate report found.

 

The CAC
report found that a family of four could save $1,365 flying out of
Bellingham instead of Vancouver for a vacation in Hawaii. The figures
show that the total cost for the family to fly would be $3,165.76 out of
Vancouver, including $440.44 in taxes and fees, while the cost to fly
out of Bellingham would be $1,800.32, including $151.20 in taxes and
fees.

 

Discovering the reasons the prices are so high in Canada was part of the senate commit-tee's work.

 

"…
[T]here was a consensus among the majority of wit-nesses who appeared
before the committee that the high cost of flying in Canada is directly
attributable to government taxes, fees and other charges that are either
paid by passengers directly, or are charged to airports or airlines and
passed on to passengers. This conclusion is supported by the find-ings
of the World Economic Forum, which ranked Canada 125th out of 139
countries for ticket taxes and airport charges in 2011," the report
states.

 

"Government taxes and fees associated with air travel,
starting with ground rents, need to be reduced to help make air travel
in Canada more afford-able and more competitive," the report concludes.

 

Dawson
said the committee found that the government should transfer ownership
of the airports to the airport authorities, which would save them the
cost of the rents.

 

The Vancouver Airport Authority pays Ottawa $34
million each year in rent, said Tony Gugliotta, senior vice-president
of marketing and business development.

 

"[Eliminating the] rent
would not solve the gap in ticket prices – it's more than just rent,"
Gugliotta said, adding that Canada has a philosophy that users should
cover the cover of air travel while the United States subsidizes
airports seemingly because they believe transportation is an enabler of
economic growth.

 

"They view it as an investment," Gugliotta said.
For instance, a recent runway extension at Bellingham's airport was paid
for by the American government, while in Canada, airport improvements
are paid for by departing travellers through the Airport Improvement
Fee, which is $20 for passengers flying outside of B.C. and Yukon.

 

YVR
serves a total of 17 million passengers each year, of which five
million are travellers to the U.S. Gugliotta said most of the nearly one
million passengers flying out of Bellingham are headed to destinations
within the U.S.

 

"So 20 per cent of our U.S. traffic is using Bellingham or Seattle," Gugliotta said. "It's pretty significant."

Traffic
at Bellingham International Airport is up 115 per cent for the period
2007 to 2011, with 62 per cent of travellers coming from Canada, the
Wall Street Journal reported.

 

Chris Youngson, who lives in North
Vancouver, has flown to Las Vegas from Bellingham a half a dozen times
and says he usually pays about $180 for the flight, and sometimes even
less.

 

He says if the price difference fell under $50, he would fly
out of YVR, especially since with a combination of bus, Seabus and
Canada Line, he can get from his home at the top of Capilano Road to the
airport in just over an hour. The drive to Bellingham is 80 kilometres
from Vancouver.

 

Both Henning and Youngson said the cheap parking
at Bellingham's airport – it's $9 a day – is one appeal, as is the fact
that the airport is small so that there are usually no waits for
security or luggage.

 

"It's 100 metres to the airport from the
parking lot," Young-son said. "There's no customs, so usually I don't
have to wait at all."

 

At YVR, long-term parking is $15.75 a day
and the lot is not within walking distance to the terminal, but there is
a shuttle bus.

 

YVR is a high-end airport complete with duty free
shops, full services restaurants and other amenities. Gugliotta said
some travellers start their vaca-tion at the airport.

 

But for
Henning and Young-son, the bare-bones nature of the Bellingham airport
is not a concern. The fact that Allegiant, which is one of the airlines
flying out of Bellingham, makes passengers pay for their bags, or to
pre-select a seat, doesn't phase Henning.

 

"I've never had a problem. As long as you get there a bit early the seats are not a problem."

 

As far as the extra luggage fees, Henning said it's worth it to save half the airfare.

 

Gugliotta
said 22 airlines signed on for an incentive deal YVR offered to keep
airlines flying out of Vancouver that froze fees at 2010 levels, even if
an airline increased their capacity or service.

 

Although he did
not have specific numbers, Gugliotta said American passengers some-times
fly out of YVR because Vancouver's airport has good deals on charter
flights to Asia and Europe. He also said there are times that fares to
American destinations like Las Vegas are cheaper out of Vancouver than
Bellingham, and that it pays to shop around.