HELENA — As the summer travel season begins to heat up, the Helena Regional Airport is taking a week off from accepting commercial flights to finish a major runway improvement project.
Over eight days, crews are resurfacing all 9,000 feet of the airport’s main runway. Because of that work, no airlines can fly in or out of the airport this week.
“The idea is to get it done as efficiently as possible, while the weather is still nice,” said airport director Jeff Wadekamper.
The work began Saturday evening and is going 24 hours a day. Crews are grinding up the existing runway surface, then laying down and compacting new asphalt.
The current surface has been in place since 2000. Wadekamper said runways typically need to be resurfaced every 20 years or so, so the surface doesn’t develop any cracks or potholes that could become dangerous for planes.
The multimillion-dollar project is being funded entirely through an Airport Improvement Grant from the Federal Aviation Administration. Airports typically have to provide 10% of the funding for those grants as a match, but that requirement was waived as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, the most recent federal COVID relief bill.
Wadekamper says they planned the weeklong closure of the main runway for this week because it is part of a much larger set of runway improvements.
“When you look at all the phases, that takes us from early May into about mid-September; that’s kind of the scope of it,” he said. “So unfortunately, this week-long project of doing the actual main portion of the runway had to kind of fall when it did in order to kind of be within the construction season that we typically have here in Montana.”
The work doesn’t mean the entire airport is closed. Small private planes, air ambulance services and air cargo flights are all still able to take off and land using smaller runways. However, the project is stopping major commercial flights at a time when passenger numbers are really beginning to improve after the pandemic.
Still, Wadekamper believes this is a good time to get the work done.
“In a sense, we’ll get it done before things really start to get busy,” he said. “We see the second half of the summer looks like it’s really going to be busy, and then we anticipate, years after this, things are going to start to really pick up. I think we’re getting it done at the right time.”
Wadekamper hopes to have the main runway work finished by the end of the day Sunday, so the airport can reopen for commercial flights on Monday.
Because no airline flights are running, the airport terminal is quiet this week, and leaders are taking this opportunity to showcase the work that’s been done on the facility. They’re holding an open house Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The airport finished a major expansion and renovation of the terminal last summer. This is a chance for the public to get a look at the new spaces without going through TSA screening.
Wadekamper said attendees can also find out more about planned updates to the flight schedule after the runway reopens. He said they hope to have most of their daily flights from before the pandemic back by the end of this year – including some with larger planes.