HELENA — Helena Regional Airport leaders say, after 2020 – a year that was difficult for everyone in the aviation industry – 2021 was a lot closer to normal. They’re hoping that upward trend will continue into the new year.
“Holiday traffic has really picked up,” said airport director Jeff Wadekamper. “We’re down just slightly on capacity because we’re short a few flights, but the flights that we do have are essentially all full.”
In 2019, the airport handled a record 237,378 passengers. In 2020, passenger numbers fell to 92,562 – just 39% of the previous year.
Wadekamper said they’re expecting to finish 2021 with 82% to 85% of the 2019 passenger traffic. That would be more than double what they saw in 2020.
“We’re very confident the demand is there,” said Wadekamper. “It’s just a matter of capacity and getting the flights back, and the airlines being able to do that with the pilot shortage and the challenges that they’re having.”
Helena’s regular Delta Air Lines flights to Minneapolis are still suspended. Wadekamper said Delta has also switched from three daily flights to Salt Lake City to two flights – though they’re using larger planes, so that’s had less impact on the available capacity.
As they go into the next year, airport leaders are also looking at their long-term plans for capital improvement projects.
Helena Regional Airport is set to receive almost $7.5 million in federal funding over the next five years, part of about $144 million allocated to Montana airports in the major infrastructure bill passed by Congress earlier this year. Wadekamper says that infusion of funds will let them bring forward some planned projects sooner than they expected.
“We’re going to acquire two new fire trucks for our operation, to replace some older ones that we have,” he said. “Initially in our plan, we thought we would just be doing one truck in ‘22, second truck in 2023 – but now with the infrastructure money, it looks like we’re going to be able to acquire both of those in 2022.”
The airport just completed some big projects: a major terminal expansion last year and a runway resurfacing this year. However, they still have some important work planned over the next few years, including taxiway and road reconstructions and a new deicing facility.
“Any time you have a facility the size of an airport, you have a lot of infrastructure, so there’s a lot of things that need constant maintenance,” Wadekamper said. “You have to almost do construction every year to keep that all in good condition.
Wadekamper said, in the coming months, airport leaders will be having discussions with Delta about the possibility of restarting flights to Minneapolis. They’re also going to meet with American Airlines about the possibility of starting new service between Helena and Phoenix. Earlier this year, the federal government awarded the airport a $1 million grant to be used as part of an incentive package as they negotiate new service with American.