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Airport outlook: Larger aircraft, but no new routes

2012-11-27T15:02:00Z 2012-11-28T00:12:27Z Airport outlook: Larger aircraft, but no new routesBy SANJAY TALWANI Independent Record Helena Independent Record
November 27, 2012 3:02 pm  • 

Despite a small decline in traffic at Helena Regional Airport this year and challenges to the airline industry nationwide, the airport is well-positioned to at least maintain its current level of service, according to a consultant’s report.

But don’t expect too many new flight options in and out of Helena. New direct flights to major hubs, or the introduction of Allegiant Air flights to the southwest, are highly unlikely.

“We could not fill a plane up in Helena, a 150-seat airplane, to go to Phoenix twice a week, or Las Vegas,” airport director Ron Mercer said Tuesday at a meeting of the Air Service/Transportation Committee of the Helena Area Chamber of Commerce. “They know it. We know it. It ain’t going to happen.”

The report also said air traffic from Helena within the state remains very unlikely. A direct route to Billings was pulled after just four months this year because of lack of use.

The Helena Regional Airport Authority commissioned Boyd Group International to produce the 45-page “Strategic Air Service Blueprint.” The consultant, Mike Boyd, will be in Helena for the committee’s next meeting, Dec. 18, to answer questions and discuss the report.

The report lists some nationwide trends that would hinder growth in air traffic here.

Overall, the report predicts a decline in airline capacity — the number of seats available — of up to 2.5 percent in 2013. Seat capacity has already declined more than 7 percent since 2008.

One trend, the move away from 50-seat jets in favor of those with 66 to 70 seats, could help Helena. That trend is due to fuel costs and high maintenance costs as the fleet ages

Delta Air Lines flights to Salt Lake City, for example, have been at about 80 percent capacity, and higher in the summer, creating strong potential for “spill” — when planes are full and potential passengers avoid flying or use other airports.

“What this clearly indicates is that Helena is well postured for the impending rapid retirement of 50-seat jets from Delta’s fleet, when they will be replaced by larger aircraft,” the report says.

A larger plane could also help with United Air Lines service during the peak summer months, the re-port says.

The United route to Denver remains “a huge plus” for Helena, allowing increased access to the eastern part of the country, but so far Helena passengers are not using the Denver hub as much as they use the Delta hub in Salt Lake City, the report says.

Southwest does not have access to the “incremental, high-yield feed” that markets such as Helena can provide for United’s Denver hub, the report says.

Air traffic in and out of Helena between January and October declined 5.3 percent from the same period in 2011, according to data from the Montana Department of Transportation.

Statewide, air traffic has increased 7.1 percent between the same periods.

There has been significant growth in the smaller oil patch cities of Eastern Montana, plus growth in most of the larger airports: 8.9 percent in Bozeman, 8.3 percent at Billings, 11.1 percent in Great Falls and 7.7 percent in Kalispell.

Traffic in and out of Butte declined 14.8 percent.

Mercer isn’t enormously concerned about the decline in traffic in Helena, noting it has risen and dropped in recent years.

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(2) Comments

  1. Colleen
    Report Abuse
    Colleen - November 28, 2012 8:39 pm
    I am in total agreement with 'myscreenname'. Flights are cheaper out of the surrounding cities.
    Very seldom do we fly United through the Denver hub because Delta flights always seem to be cheaper.
  2. myscreenname
    Report Abuse
    myscreenname - November 28, 2012 1:25 pm
    It is hard to believe this article came out when it did as we are flying out of town via Bozeman due the outrageous charges Delta / United imposes on Helena travelers. We had a discussion in the office how something has to change, or the entire city will be flying out of Missoula, Bozeman, or Great Falls.
    Delta wanted $688.00 for a flight to Vegas thru SLC out of Bozeman and Missoula the flight was $288.00 - $312.00. The Bozeman flight only had 2 seats left and I was surprised that they offered the flight so cheap since they only had 2 seats left. Keep in mind the flight to Vegas from all 3 cities put you on the same plane from SLC to Vegas, so the only reason for the increase in price was the SLC to Helena leg.
    We work with many out of town vendors and for the past few years they all complain about the prices to fly into Helena and most of them fly into MT via Missoula or Bozeman. These are travelers from warmer states willing to drive in winter 2 hours to avoid the excessive flight costs in Helena. Majority of the Hotels in Helena are near capacity so we have travelers. I think I know why you are seeing a decline in numbers; we are all flying out of Bozeman, Missoula, and Great Falls.
    I don’t know if this is an airport commission issue or not; and I recognize we might be in a catch-22. If the flights were the same prices as they are out of Bozeman and Missoula, then more people would fly out of Helena, but the airlines probably cannot or need to reduce the prices until there is more demand to fly out of Helena.I realize Helena doesn’t have the population to offer Allegiant flights to Phoenix and Las Vegas

    Every single person in our office, who has purchased an airline ticket during the past year, has flown out of a different city because the airfare was so drastically less expensive, not because there weren't enough seats on the plane. I don’t think this is that hard to figure out.

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