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A Delta Airlines pilot inspects the exterior of a plane docked at one of Helena Regional Aiport's two jet-bridges recently.

A Delta Air Lines pilot inspects the exterior of a plane docked at Helena Regional Airport. A $10 million terminal expansion project will add an additional jet bridge and expand the passenger holding and queuing areas at the airport. 

After seeing a record number of travelers in 2017, Helena Regional Airport's jet bridges are expected to get even busier in the coming years. 

A record 210,000 fliers passed through Helena Regional Airport in 2017, according to numbers released by the Montana Department of Transportation. Helena's airport also saw a 29.3 percent increase in aircraft operations.

Airport director Jeff Wadekamper said the load factor, or percentage of flights filled with passengers, was between the 70th and the upper 90th percentile for Helena flights over the past year.

For anyone who’s been on a flight to Salt Lake City, Denver, Minneapolis or Seattle in the past year, those numbers will probably seem accurate.

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Passenger waiting area

A record 210,000 fliers passed through Helena airport in 2017, according to numbers released by the Montana Department of Transportation.

“Full airplanes are good for air carriers,” Wadekamper explained, but full planes are also good for Helena travel. Delta and United introduced larger aircraft to fly to Salt Lake City this past year, upgrading from 50-seat planes to 65- or 76-seat planes to accommodate the heavier passenger loads.

“It’s great from a passenger perspective,” Wadekamper said, pointing to how larger planes can accommodate more passengers. “Helena can utilize additional seats.”

Helena Regional Airport is looking at expanding to more flights.

“No. 1 is a second daily to Seattle,” Wadekamper said.  Second is “a new route to Portland, Oregon. Portland is No. 2 in origination airports for Helena.”

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The DC-10 supertanker, which has a 11,600 gallon fire suppressant capacity, sits at the Helena Regional Airport Monday morning.

A DC-10 supertanker sits at the Helena Regional Airport in July 2017. Montana's massive wildfire season was partially responsible for the increase in airport traffic in 2017. Helena is the largest fire base in the northwest.

Montana's massive wildfire season was partially responsible for the increase in traffic in 2017. Helena is the largest fire base in the northwest, housing everything from helicopters to DC-10 supertankers.

“You don’t want to see fires,” Wadekamper said, “but fires help us and played a big role in the increase” in air traffic over the past year.

The airport is looking at even more ways to expand the air traffic that comes through the airport. But a big part of acquiring new air services requires getting what other airports can’t, like grants and terminal services.

“It’s keeping up with the Joneses,” Wadekamper said about applications for grants and adding new flying routes.

The airport plans to start a two-year, $10 million terminal expansion project in August. Wadekamper said the lobby will be moved farther into the building, expanding the passenger holding and queuing areas, and an additional jet bridge capable of docking two aircraft will be added. 

The goal of the construction is to be able to hold “500 passengers at a time and keep up on a parallel track with growth,” Wadekamper said. The project will be funded by the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program, a fund that helps airports build terminals and a shortlist of other approved projects.

Wadekamper emphasized that this would not add to anyone's tax bill, but would be taken directly from airport's operating profits.

“The airport is a self-sufficient entity,” Wadekamper said. “It won’t change airfare costs.”

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Passenger work through security recently at the Helena Regional Airport.

Passengers work through security recently at the Helena Regional Airport. According to airport director Jeff Wadekamper, an expansion project will provide more room for the security line and cut down on passenger congestion.

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Reporter

Reporter at the Helena Independent Record.

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