HELENA — The day before Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the busiest travel days nationwide, including at the Helena Regional Airport. But this year, the holiday rush is much slower than usual.
Airport director Jeff Wadekamper estimates passenger numbers over Thanksgiving will be down nearly two-thirds compared to 2019. For the year to date, they’ve seen about 54% fewer travelers than last year.
“We’re just kind of hanging in there and trying to get through this whole thing and hoping for recovery at some point here in the near future,” Wadekamper said.
Wadekamper said, in the spring, immediately after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, traffic fell by more than 90%. By the summer, they had gotten back to around half their normal passengers, but those numbers fell again in the fall. The expected 65% drop in Thanksgiving travelers would actually be slightly better than the 70% decrease they have been averaging.
The airline industry has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. On Monday, Nov. 24, the Transportation Safety Administration reported 912,090 travelers nationwide went through their security checkpoints. That’s compared to 2,435,170 travelers on the same date in 2019. Also, last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out a recommendation that people postpone Thanksgiving travel.
Helena Regional Airport has a number of revenue sources besides air travelers, but months of lower passenger revenue have had an impact on the budget. Wadekamper said they put off some capital improvement projects and equipment purchases, and they delayed their plan to hire a new staff member after the completion of the expanded terminal earlier this year.
While the actual number of passengers using the Helena airport is down significantly, Wadekamper said the percentage of available seats that are occupied has remained more stable. Airlines have significantly limited their capacity by routing fewer flights through Helena, using smaller planes and leaving some seats open for greater distancing.
Currently, five flights a day are departing from Helena – three to Salt Lake City on Delta Air Lines, one to Denver on United Airlines and one to Seattle on Alaska Airlines. Prior to the pandemic, they also had an additional daily United flight to Denver and Delta flight to Minneapolis, and Alaska was planning to add a second flight to Seattle.
Wadekamper noted that, prior to this year, they had seen five consecutive years of growing passenger numbers. He said he expects slow traffic to continue into the first part of 2021, but that he’s optimistic it could start recovering soon after.
“There’s a lot of interest in folks coming to Montana – even more so now since this pandemic started – so I think Montana will recover quicker than some of the other portions of the nation,” he said.
Wadekamper also said, if you are flying out of Helena, you should still get to the airport an hour and a half ahead of time – despite the lower traffic. The airlines still maintain the same cutoff times, and if passengers arrive too close to takeoff, they may not be able to get on their plane.