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.