Rendering of an expanded Helena airport terminal (Courtesy: Helena Regional Airport)

(HELENA) Leaders at the Helena Regional Airport shared more details Thursday about their plans to upgrade the airport terminal.

Director Jeff Wadekamper said the number of travelers using the airport has increased 22 percent since the terminal was last remodeled in 2005. He said the building isn’t able to keep up.

“Right now, during peak demand times, we’re really at capacity,” Wadekamper said. “We don’t have enough seats for everybody; we’re really cramped on space.”

Now, leaders are planning a major expansion to the terminal. Construction could start as soon as June 2018.

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Passengers will notice one of the biggest changes as soon as they enter the building. The Transportation Security Administration checkpoint will be moved back, out of the main lobby. Currently, Wadekamper said security lines can become so long that they interfere with the ticketing area.

The entire passenger waiting area will be moved to the second floor. Leaders also plan to add a larger restaurant and bar, a business center, improved Wi-Fi and other amenities.

“It will be a very welcoming, relaxing place to be waiting for your flight,” Wadekamper said.

Wadekamper said the project will also deal with ongoing maintenance needs in the terminal building, which dates back to the 1970s. He said one 40-year-old elevator has been malfunctioning and needs to be replaced.

One of the driving forces behind the expansion project is the changing needs of the airlines that serve Helena. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines have recently started using larger jet planes for their Helena flights, and Alaska Airlines to make the same change over the next few years.

Once the terminal expansion is finished, the airport will be able to handle up to five 100-seat planes – and their passengers – at one time. Currently, it can host no more than three planes at once.

Wadekamper said the improvements will be important as airport leaders continue to look for new flights to come into Helena.

“Having enough gates, enough jet bridges, enough passenger holding space – even simple things like electrical capacity to hook up aircraft power units when they’re on the ground – all those things, it certainly plays a part in continuing to increase our air service,” he said.

The new expansion will be built in two phases, so the airport is able to continue full operations during construction. The work should be finished within two years.

A number of Helena companies are involved in the terminal project. Morrison-Maierle is doing engineering work, while CWG Architects is collaborating on the design with Price Simpson Harvey, a Virginia company that specializes in airport work. Dick Anderson Construction will be the general contractor and construction manager.

The project will cost around $10 million in total. Wadekamper said 90 percent of that funding will come from the Federal Aviation Administration, which collects a 7.5 percent surcharge on plane tickets to pay for airport infrastructure improvements around the country. The remaining 10 percent will come from the airport’s existing revenues.

“None of this project will cost anything to the local taxpayers,” said Wadekamper.

Wadekamper said the terminal expansion is designed to be scalable, so it will be easier to expand again if the airport sees continued growth.

“We want to be proactive instead of reactionary to it, and make sure that we keep the airport the best it can be, and continue to make sure Helena has the best air service it can have,” he said.