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A Delta Airlines planes sits parked at the new jet bridge

A Delta Airlines planes sits parked at the new jet bridge at the Helena Regional Airport Thursday.

With an expansion project and smaller capital improvements projects in the works at Helena Regional Airport, customers aren't likely to miss the orange-vested workers making it all happen.

Airport Director Jeff Wadekamper said construction crews just wrapped up phase one of its large terminal project. Additionally, work is getting underway on a slew of projects that include new airplane taxi lanes, improved airplane parking and a complete replacement of the emergency communications system. These overhauls of the airport infrastructure will help expand its business capabilities. 

Phase one of the terminal project was completed in a few short months, but phase two will take more than a year to complete. This is the longest part of the expansion and will see the airport expand to meet passenger demand and the needs of major airlines. 

Airport director Jeff Wadekamper talks about the airport's new jet bridge

Airport director Jeff Wadekamper talks about the airport's new jet bridge last week at the Helena Regional Airport.

Passengers will find themselves waiting either upstairs in the new construction or on the lower level in what will eventually be a storage area. Wadekamper said this helps the airport not waste materials or space while working on phase two. Phase two is the largest part of the project that will see crews finish the passenger boarding terminal.

The $12 million, 20,000-square-foot airport expansion project is funded partially by a federal grant of $6.7 million. The remainder is funded by the airport itself and its partners.

The project will prepare the airport for future growth. The number of passengers at the airport and the size of airplanes have increased considerably over the past several years. The airport gained more than 30,000 seats for passengers last year and Wadekamper said the airport has been fortunate enough to fill most of them. 

Flights to Seattle increased the most. The airport also is popular for flights to Denver, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. In the past six years, passenger numbers have increased 23%. The airport experienced four consecutive years of growth leading into 2019. 

With all this growth it can be intimidating knowing just how much to expand. "The goal is to not overbuild," Wadekamper said. "But build based off of an estimate of the airport's needs."

Passengers at the Helena Regional Airport

Passengers at the Helena Regional Airport will find themselves waiting either upstairs in the new construction or on the lower level in what will eventually be a storage area. Pictured, is the temporary Alaska Airlines gate downstairs.

Additionally, Wadekamper said it helps the airport convince airline partners Delta Airlines, United Airlines and Alaska Airlines that there is a market for growth in Helena. Catering to the needs of these airlines is a major driving factor in this expansion.

"The trend is aircraft getting bigger," Wadekamper said. "And you have to have the space and the jet bridges to accommodate that."

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Wadekamper said the new jet bridges can accommodate everything from a 50-seat regional jet to a 757. Their flexibility allows them to accommodate a variety of parking positions, which is important because the Helena airport is seeing fewer 50-seat planes and more 76-seat planes. 

"This is an industry-wide trend that is more efficient and cost effective," Wadekamper said. "Alaska Airlines, for instance, made a company decision to move away from turboprop to jet airplanes. This is another driving force, accommodating the aircraft partners."

However, the terminal is just one of the projects ongoing at the Helena Regional Airport. There are three projects that are part of the airport's capital improvements plan which will see the airport infrastructure improved. 

The emergency communications system, which connects the FAA air traffic control tower to the airport fire station, will be replaced. This will include new cabling between the two facilities and a new system installed on each end. 

Excavators deconstruct a wall of the airport

Excavators deconstruct a wall of the airport Thursday as crews started the second phase of the renovation project.

Airplane taxi lanes that serve the aviation hangar areas will undergo pavement replacement and new lanes will be installed to provide additional space for construction of privately-owned hangars. 

"We have nearly used up all of our existing hangar lots and have more interest from private parties who want to build hangars," Wadekamper said. "So new taxi lanes are needed."

The airport will also be replacing pavement on several of the aircraft parking aprons located on the south side of the airport. 

"These aircraft parking aprons are not used by the airlines, as they are located on the general aviation side of the airfield, but they serve all other aviation activities and aircraft," Wadekamper said. "The existing pavements are at the end of their life and were last replaced in 1983."

These additional projects should be completed in 2019.

A final phase will last around six months and connect the new passenger waiting area to the main terminal, making the project more cohesive. Wadekamper said lots of small things will be addressed in the final phase. 

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