As Montana and Wyoming airports rebound with federal dollars, why did some get more than others?

Posted at 2:36 PM, Apr 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-23 16:36:30-04

As federal dollars start to trickle down to the state and local level, airports in Montana and Wyoming are already starting to think about how they'll spend stimulus money from the CARES Act.

At the Billings Logan International Airport, director Kevin Ploehn was happy to hear he's receiving about $12 million from the stimulus fund. But those in the aviation world were shocked that another, much smaller airport 100 miles away was given a lot more.

The Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody, Wyo., was granted about $18 million, which stunned the officials there. They say they believe it's because they have low debt and are a growing airport.

Federal stimulus money begins trickling to Montana, Wyoming airports

In Billings, flights aren’t as frequent as they were a few months ago. In fact, only some 90 travelers are flying out a day, according to Ploehn.

He looks forward to a time when the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus ends and airport operations can get back to normal.

“For travelers to actually start traveling again and doing those things that they were doing previous to this event,” he said.

The CARES Act passed last month by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump promised millions of dollars in stimulus money to a variety of businesses and other groups hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Airports in Montana were handed hefty amounts of money from FAA grants. Billings was awarded more than $12 million to aid in the loss of revenue, but it’s by far not the most money handed out to our area.

“Some airports that are actually quite smaller than us that didn't have a lot of debt and got a whole bunch of money,” said Ploehn.

He’s talking about Cody, which has a population of around 9,000 residents.

“We were stunned when we got that much money,” said Cody's airport board chair, Bucky Hall.

That being said, Hall says Cody is deserving of the money because the area is a growing airport with a booming tourism appeal, something the FAA must have weighed when reviewing grant applications.

According to Hall, the airport averaged 38 flights a week and last year hit a record high for travel.

“We're the fastest growing airport in Wyoming. There's only nine commercial airports in Wyoming. But Jackson's the busiest airport, Casper second, but in the summer we're the second busiest airport,” he said.

Hall says being in close proximity to Yellowstone National park helps.

“We're 50 miles away from the park. We have a world class museum here. That's a destination for people, and between that and being the east entrance to the park, and we're kind of sort of the entrance to the northeast entrance where Cooke City, Montana, is.,” said Hall.

He also says the area chamber and city leaders are boosting the area as a destination and have been for some time. However he acknowledges an impact to Yellowstone National Park and its allowance on visitors due to the virus could impact those tourism dollars for Cody, this summer.

Meanwhile, Ploehn says he has no sour grapes when it comes to Cody’s airport getting more money.

“I’m not going to look at gift horse in the mouth,” laughed Ploehn.

He says they’ll use this money to stay afloat and cover basic operating costs while the airport’s revenue suffers greatly from a steady lack in travelers due to stay at home orders nationwide.

“But what we will do is take those operating costs, the average amount each month and do a draw down on that grant to cover,” he said.

And he’s got a plan for that nearly $60 million airport renovation that's been in the works, something Ploehn has been worrying about for the past several weeks.

He says the projects are currently out to bid and before this stimulus money came down from the federal government he thought he may have to postpone.

However, now he believes the timing will work out nicely.

“If we can build this project this year, the numbers are low, I think we come out ahead all the way around,” he said. “It’s so that when we finally kind of get back to some normalcy will be in the bigger newer space, and a lot of people will be a lot more comfortable.”

Hall says, Cody’s airport is slated for some long-term projects that are now being encouraged to get done faster, although what happens next will be decided at a Thursday airport board meeting , he said.

“And we have projects for five, six, and seven years. And basically, this money allows us to do all those projects right away,” he said.

As for why the Yellowstone Regional Airport was awarded so much more than any of Montana’s largest airports, Hall and Ploehn believes some of it has to do with the financial makeup of each facility.

“We don't have any debt. And that was one of the key components. And we're a growth airport,” said Hall.

Still, each airport isn’t sure when the money will come in and be available to use. The FAA gave very little restrictions on how the money can be spent, however officials did inform Hall, they can’t use the money to recruit new airlines.

Here's a breakdown of what each airport in Montana received:

Bozeman —$15,446,029

Billings —$12,721,011

Missoula —$5,616,102

Great Falls— $3,960,216

Helena —$2,999,713

Butte— $1,143,102

Kalispell —$30,000

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