(HELENA) The Helena Regional Airport is preparing to turn in an application for a federal grant that could help bring in additional flights.
Airport director Jeff Wadekamper expects to file the application for the Small Community Air Service Development Program grant next week. His goal is to attract a second daily flight to Seattle and new service to Portland.
Wadekamper said adding another flight to Seattle, especially one arriving at night and departing in the morning, would make it easier for travelers to get connecting flights. He said Portland is currently the second-most common destination or originating airport for people traveling through Helena, behind only Seattle.
The airport is asking for $500,000 in federal money. Leaders also raised $125,000 in contributions from community members. If the grant application is successful, the airport will offer that $625,000 to airlines as an incentive if they agree to add more flights.
“In air service development today, you have to have a good market for it, you have to have a good business case, but then in addition to that, for the airlines to pay attention to you, you really need to provide an incentive package,” Wadekamper said.
The money would be used as a revenue guarantee to cover the airline’s costs during the first few years of the new flights, and as a marketing budget to promote the new service.
It is possible that the U.S. Department of Transportation could decide to fund Helena’s entire request, or provide just part.
Wadekamper said he expects the grant recipients to be announced within 60 to 90 days of the application deadline on Dec. 15. Even if Helena is successful, though, new service won’t start immediately.
“We’re all excited to get this done as soon as we possibly can,” said Wadekamper. “But we have to be patient, because it might take a little longer.”
If Helena receives the grant, airport leaders will still have to negotiate a deal with an airline that’s willing to add more flights. Alaska Air Group, which manages the current flights between Helena and Seattle, submitted a letter of support for the airport’s application, saying it was willing to consider expanding service to Helena. But Wadekamper said there are no guarantees until an official deal is finalized.
Wadekamper also said any new service could be delayed because of a nationwide shortage of qualified airline pilots. He said Horizon Air, the Alaska Air Group subsidiary that operates the Helena-Seattle route, has been hit especially hard by the shortage.
The Helena Regional Airport has previously received one Small Community Air Service grant. In 2008, airport leaders used the grant to add United Airlines flights to Denver. Last year, they applied for a grant for the second Seattle flight, but were unsuccessful.
Wadekamper said he’s hopeful they will receive the grant this year, since more money is being made available than last year.
“It’s never a sure thing, but it’s a step closer to the process of ensuring that we can do whatever possible to get these new flights in place,” he said.