After two years of construction, a major terminal expansion project at the Helena Regional Airport is nearly complete.
On Monday afternoon, several dozen passengers waited in the newly expanded and newly remodeled terminal for a flight to Salt Lake City.
Julie Salvitti was on her way to Atlanta for work. Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said she flew about once a month for her job with the Veterans Health Administration. She says Helena has been her favorite airport to travel through.
“It’s quaint, the staff are very friendly and helpful, and it’s easy to get in and out,” she said.
Salvitti said she’s pleased with the improvements in the terminal.
“I like it,” she said. “I think they’ve gone modern without going too modern, where we still have the kind of rustic feel, which is one of my favorite things too.”
The $12 million project added about 20,000 square feet to the terminal building. It added new jet bridges, so that the airport can handle up to six planes at a time. It provided more space in the lobby and ticketing areas, to reduce the chance of bottlenecks forming when multiple flights are departing at the same time. It included a new location for food and drink service behind the TSA checkpoint.
Previously, the terminal area had enough seating space for about 170 passengers. Now, it can fit more than 500. However, because of COVID-19, most of that capacity isn’t being used yet.
Airport director Jeff Wadekamper said passenger traffic this month is down about 70% from last July. For the year so far, they’re down 54% from the 2019 numbers.
While that downward trend is a challenge for the airport, Wadekamper said it actually helped them finish the terminal project ahead of schedule. The work was initially expected to continue through October, but now only a few minor updates still need to be completed.
“The silver lining in that was that it allowed us to work in some areas much more efficiently, much quicker, and so we got things done a lot sooner,” said Wadekamper. “The contractor did really good at figuring out ways to be efficient with that.”
Wadekamper said another positive has been that the new larger terminal gives more room for passengers to socially distance while waiting for their plane.
“We don’t have a lot of traffic right now, but we have the space, so that helps out quite a bit,” he said. “In our old space, that would have been even more challenging just because it isn’t that big of a space.”
Wadekamper said, in recent weeks, they have seen some flights return and more passengers come through. He said additional flights are expected to begin again in August and September.
“I think people are excited to see the capital city’s airport get expanded and have more amenities and more space,” he said. “When things get back to normal as far as passenger travel goes, we’ll be ready to accommodate that continued growth that we were seeing.”