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Industry slump

Helena airport waives airline fees amid industry slump

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Airport Runway Construction

A Horizon Airlines flight from Seattle taxis at the Helena Regional Airport on June 2.

The Helena Regional Airport Authority is waiving all airport use fees for airlines currently serving Helena for the month of January.

"Many small communities around the nation have lost significant air service over the past 2 years, and in recent months many more have seen additional service cuts and in some cases airlines completely exiting markets served for decades," a press release sent out by the authority states. "We decided to take a proactive stance and offer the airlines which operate out of Helena some relief from paying airport use fees for the month of January 2022."

The fees ostensibly amount to rent, and the waivers will be extended to Alaska, Delta, United airlines and their regional affiliates, who have been hit hard in past month with the surge of COVID-19 cases, staffing shortages and inclement weather systems across the country.

Airport Director Jeff Wadekamper said in an interview that the airport use fees vary from month to month and airline to airline and are dependent on a number of factors such as passenger numbers.

Wadekamper said the authority estimated it would be taking about a $40,000 hit for the month of January, though he stressed that number is "a shot in the dark."

"We want to support those airlines and make sure they're doing well in Helena," he said.

During the beginnings of the global COVID-19 pandemic about two years ago, Delta Airlines rerouted some of its flights from Helena to Minneapolis. The authority has been lobbying for the restoration of that service ever since, but Wadekamper said he does not want to see Helena lose any further service.

"It's something we've never done before," he said. "We're doing all we can to maintain the level of service here."

According to the press release, airline traffic in Helena has been recovering from the major slump of two years ago, but remains below 2019 levels.

The move is unusual. While airports will occasionally offer fee waivers, it is typically done to attract new airlines, not retain old ones.

"We want to ensure we can continue our operations without making it an unfriendly environment for the airlines," Wadekamper said.

The authority is heavily recruiting new service as well thanks to a more than $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Small Community Air Service Development Program received last summer.

The bulk of that money will be kept as revenue guarantees for the first three years and offer the same fee waivers for up to a year.

He said the authority was able to waive January's fees due to the airport's diversified revenue streams, airport-wide cost savings and an influx of federal recovery dollars.

"This gesture of continued partnership with the airlines, along with a diversified airport business model and strong demand for air service will ensure that Helena maintains service through these challenging times and ultimately sees future growth in our market to serve a growing state of Montana," the press release states.

Wadekamper said with recent multi-million-dollar upgrades to the terminal and tarmac, the airport is well positioned for that future growth, it just needs to weather the storm.

He said when the industry returns to some semblance of normalcy and airlines look to expand services again, perhaps they will "look more favorably on on Helena."

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Local Government and Crime Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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