HELENA — Helena Regional Airport leaders are hopeful that they’ve taken a key step toward bringing in a new airline. It’s good news in the middle of what’s been a hectic summer for the airport.
This week, Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines announced the airport had won a grant of just over $1 million from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Small Community Air Service Development Program. That money will be used as part of an incentive package intended to convince American Airlines to start direct flights between Helena and Phoenix.
“That was quite a process we went through to make that application, and we’ve had our fingers crossed for a number of months hoping that we were going to be successful, so we’re excited about that,” said airport manager Jeff Wadekamper.
In addition to the grant funding, the incentive package will include about $207,000 in pledges from local businesses and community members and $120,000 in fee waivers from the airport.
This decision alone doesn’t guarantee a new flight will start. The airport must still negotiate a contract agreement with American. Wadekamper said they’ll begin taking to the airline in the next few weeks.
There are still a lot of variables in the aviation industry, which is still adjusting to the aftermath of COVID-19. According to national reports (https://apnews.com/article/health-coronavirus-pandemic-lifestyle-travel-airlines-cf73d5ee0215632dd7d7a6e0cf8100cc), American Airlines actually cut several hundred flights last month to avoid overloading its operations. Helena’s total passenger numbers have recovered somewhat from the height of the pandemic, but they’re still down about 30% from where they were before.
Still, Wadekamper remains confident American will see value in expanding to Helena.
“I think Montana’s been a point of interest when you take into account the entire nation,” he said. “Montana’s been a location that folks have really been interested in visiting for leisure traffic – you see a lot of folks relocating to Montana, both professionally and individually.”
The airport has up to three years to reach an agreement to use the grant. Wadekamper said the earliest a new flight could start would probably be late fall or winter.
Helena Regional Airport last received a Small Community Air Service grant in 2008, which allowed them to begin United Airlines flights to Denver. Since then, they applied unsuccessfully two other times.
While the airport looks at the future of passenger flights, they’re also focused on wildfire response. On Monday, Wadekamper said nine air tankers, four contract helicopters and a variety of other firefighting aircraft were using the airport. Most were responding to the Harris Mountain Fire, burning near Cascade.
Wadekamper said they had crews clear off several former National Guard helipads that haven’t been used in several years, in case they need more room for fire resources.
“We’re trying to make space where we can – just anticipating, not knowing if we’re going to see more firefighting aircraft or not,” he said.
The airport has a single fuel vendor that serves all aircraft. Wadekamper said, on several days recently, they’ve used much of their fuel handling the heavy traffic – but they haven’t run out yet.
Wadekamper also praised air traffic control, saying they have been able to schedule the flights into narrow windows and minimize delays for commercial planes.
So far, Wadekamper said there haven’t been any flight delays due to smoke at the Helena airport. He said planes will only be disrupted if smoky conditions cause visibility to fall below about one mile.