The Helena Regional Airport is offering a larger flight to Denver, which is one of several efforts to respond to a decade of growth.
Airport Director Jeff Wadekamper said the airport has experienced 22 percent growth in the last 10 years and is working on a grant to add more flight options and a terminal expansion next year.
In 2016, the airport saw a record year of growth up 3.5 percent from 2015. Wadekamper said most smaller airports are trying to maintain services, but Helena is ready for additional flights.
“We’re seeing that stable growth,” he said. “Keeping air services is the biggest challenge today.”
The United flight to Denver started operating with a 76 seat Embraer 175 on Sept. 6, which increases the number of seats available by 41 percent per year. Wadekamper said United will completely phase out its 50 seat jets by 2018, making the 76 seat flight permanent. The new jet has a first class section, which Wadekamper said is in high demand.
While some smaller communities are already having trouble filling a 50-seat jet, Wadekamper said United flights out of Helena have been nearly full. This year, flights have been 89 percent full.
“They’ve done very well in Helena,” Wadekamper said.
The airport has diversified its revenue to be less dependent on income from airlines. Wadekamper said 34 percent of the airport’s revenue comes from non-aviation sources like lease income from owning the land Costco, Boeing and the Independent Record sit on.
Delta and Alaska Airlines, the other two airlines operating out of Helena, are also open to growth. Delta recently increased their service to Salt Lake City to a 76-seat jet.
Wadekamper said the airport is planning to expand its terminal. Passengers have been boarding Alaska Airlines flights from the ground, but the decision to bring in a larger jet in the next few years will require another jet bridge.
The number one destination for passengers is Seattle, closely followed by Portland. Wadekamper said the airport is interested in getting back a morning flight to Seattle, which went away several years ago, and adding a flight to Portland. The community has already raised $125,000 as an incentive for airlines to guarantee they won’t lose money when expanding into a new market. The airport is working on a matching grant of $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Once that grant is secured, Wadekamper said the airport will propose Alaska Airlines add another flight to Seattle and one to Portland.