HELENA – Helena Regional Airport leaders say Wednesday was an exciting day.
“In some respects, I think it’s like Christmas Eve,” said Rick Hays, chair of the Helena Regional Airport Authority.
They held a groundbreaking ceremony to officially launch a major project to expand the airport terminal.
The $12 million project will add an additional 20,000 square feet to the terminal building. Once it’s finished, the building will have enough seating space for up to 500 passengers at a time, and the airport will be able to handle up to six planes.
Airport director Jeff Wadekamper said they will also make a number of other improvements, from expanding the Transportation Security Administration’s screening area and adding more restrooms to building a full restaurant behind the security checkpoint and upgrading Wi-Fi access and electrical charging stations.
Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins and Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Andy Hunthausen were on hand for Wednesday’s ceremony. They said the expansion would be a boost for Helena businesses, and help create a good first impression for travelers coming through the area.
“It’s going to be a great way for us to show off who we are as a city and a state, and what we have to offer,” Cooney said.
Wadekamper said the expansion is a necessary step to keep up with the growth they have seen in recent years. Since the current terminal was finished in 2005, the Helena airport has seen a 22 percent increase in passenger traffic. The last three years have seen record numbers of passengers, and Wadekamper said the airport is on pace to break the record again this year.
“We do anticipate that’s going to continue,” he said. “Airlines are going to larger aircraft, increasing flights – and we’re working on several opportunities for the future as well.”
The expansion project will be completed in three phases. The first will be an addition to the west side of the terminal building. Wadekamper said he hopes to have the addition fully enclosed before the start of winter, and entirely completed within about eight months.
Once the addition is finished, operations will be moved into that area while the next phase of construction goes on. Wadekamper said passengers shouldn’t be affected by the work.
“The flights will still come and go,” he said. “They’ll still have areas that will accommodate all the schedules we have today, but they will be moved around during the project.”
The terminal expansion project will be funded mostly through grants from the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency collects a 7.5 percent surcharge on plane tickets to pay for airport infrastructure improvements around the country.