HELENA — As air traffic starts to recover after the COVID-19 pandemic, Helena Regional Airport leaders hope they’ll be able to offer travelers a new destination.
The airport plans to apply for a federal grant this month, to help them bring in an American Airlines flight between Helena and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. American would be the fourth airline operating in Helena.
Airport director Jeff Wadekamper says they have been in regular discussions with airlines over the last few years, looking for ways to increase service. He said American showed renewed interest, just as the application period for the Small Community Air Service Development Program grant opened.
“You get an opportunity like that, you have to really run with it,” he said.
Wadekamper says Phoenix is currently the fifth-most popular origination and destination airport for travelers using the Helena airport. Sky Harbor is also a hub for American, so it would provide a number of new connecting flights.
Helena Regional Airport – like airports nationwide – has seen significant declines in passenger numbers during the pandemic. Wadekamper estimated in November that their annual numbers were down by about half compared to 2019. However, he’s hopeful airlines will take another look at Helena as they scale their operations back up.
“The unique opportunity that we find ourselves in is as the airlines start looking at how do we go forward as the economy recovers and as the air travel industry recovers – where are the opportunities, what can we do differently, more efficiently?” he said.
The airport is now seeking pledges of financial support from the community. As part of the grant application, airports put together “incentive packages,” to cover some of the airline’s start-up costs for a new route. They are not allowed to use airport funds for those packages.
Wadekamper says their goal is to secure pledges for $100,000 in cash and $50,000 in marketing support.
“Ideally, back before the pandemic, we would have probably tried to go for a little more, and we might have been able to do that a little more realistically back then,” he said. “We’re trying to balance what’s reasonable in this timeframe, but we’ve had good response so far.”
The airport is asking the Federal Aviation Administration for up to $1.1 million through the grant. If their application is successful, the federal and community funding will all be offered to American as part of a proposed deal to start the new flight.
Wadekamper said they expect to hear whether their grant application has been approved in the middle of this year. He said the earliest a new flight could start would be the end of 2021 – and perhaps more likely the start of 2022.
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. In 2017, they applied for a grant to add a second flight to Seattle, and the next year, they applied again to add service to Portland and new flights to Seattle. Both of those attempts were unsuccessful.
Last year, the airport completed a major, $12 million terminal expansion project. Wadekamper says the added space and additional jet bridges will be a big help as they seek to attract more service.
“I wouldn’t say we couldn’t have done it, but it certainly would have been a challenge,” he said.
Billings currently has American Airlines flights to Sun Harbor Airport. Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Kalispell and Missoula have Allegiant Air flights to another Phoenix-area airport, Phoenix-Mesa Gateway.