This week, Helena Regional Airport officials will be meeting with a number of airlines about the possibility of bringing in more air service.
Airport director Jeff Wadekamper says they regularly speak to airline representatives by phone or email. This time, though, they will meet in person, in Montana.
“It’s nice to have face-to-face meetings with them as well, so we can go and sit down and really kind of get into the nuts and bolts of the air service that we have in mind,” he said. “And sometimes in those situations, there’s things that the airlines might have in mind that either we haven’t thought of or we didn’t think were possibilities.”
Leaders will talk to current carriers – Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines – about adding flights, and they’ll speak with new airlines that might be interested in coming into Helena.
“We’re going to cover every base,” Wadekamper said. “We don’t want to leave anything unturned.”
Wadekamper said this is an important time to talk about expanding air service. Helena Regional Airport is currently going through a $12 million terminal expansion project, aimed at creating more room for passengers and helping the airport handle larger planes – and more of them at a time.
“As the terminal expansion still has about a year to go, we want to be preparing and reminding the airlines that that’s coming along and that that facility is going to be available for additional flights,” said Wadekamper. “So we’re kind of working that on a parallel track.”
Last year, Wadekamper says airlines brought larger planes and additional flights to Helena, adding about 30,000 available seats. Passengers filled many of those seats, as the airports’ total passenger numbers grew by more than 24,000 – from 209,488 in 2017 to 233,651 in 2018.
“Now we’ve proved ourselves in that, and so we can utilize that as an example to the airlines, to say, ‘See, you gave us those additional seats, we’ve utilized them, there’s still more room in this market to grow,’” Wadekamper said.
Wadekamper will also point to things like the airport’s business model, which is aimed at making it affordable for airlines to operate. He sees Helena’s location as another selling point.
“If you want to serve the state, especially with something new, Helena’s the central location to do it,” he said. “Then you don’t have to be in multiple airports; you can be in one. People will come from the other communities to Helena.”
But that central location can also be an obstacle. The number of available planes and pilots are limited, so Helena has to compete for flights with other airports in Montana and beyond. Because of that competition, airlines seek out airports that can offer incentive packages – including guaranteed revenue as a new flight starts operations. Airports aren’t allowed to use their own funds for those guarantees, so they seek local businesses and community organizations to help provide financial support.
“We’ve made them aware that if we get far enough along in some of these talks, we’re probably going to have to raise some community-driven money to put into that incentive package,” said Wadekamper. “The hope is that you’d put that money there and you’d never spend it, but you have to be prepared to spend it if the airlines take any shortfall.”
If any airline has serious interest in expanding operations in Helena, Wadekamper said they will pursue a Small Community Air Service Development grant from the Federal Aviation Administration. That grant would also require a financial commitment from the Helena community.
Regardless of what comes out of this week’s meetings, Wadekamper said it will be valuable simply to keep airlines thinking about Helena.
“Maintaining that relationship, maintaining the fact that they know that there’s an airport in Helena, there’s a community in Helena, and that there’s air service needs here – and that they can be successful here – is important,” he said.