Monday, February 20, 2012

New Law Means Planes Stay Flying in Eastern Montana

Essential air service is a federally subsidized program. In Montana, it helps pay for flights from seven smaller Montana communities to Billings. It allows residents in those small towns to stay connected to transportation options.

While some lawmakers wanted to eliminate funding nationwide, the new law gives the program 140 million dollars this year. In Montana that means Silver Airways is guaranteed a 5% profit.

It might as well be a private jet. On this afternoon flight there is only one passenger going from Billings to Havre. Officials in Lewistown, the midway point, say the 19-seat plane is "rarely full."

“Some days we get quite a few people,” Andrea Burnham admits. She normally stays on the ground as a Silver Airways employee, but this day she's taking the flight to Billings for some shopping.

Three others were scheduled to hop on the morning flight to the Magic City. Larry Quinlan has used the service a few times. He was in Lewistown to watch his daughter's basketball game, opting to fly instead of driving 2 and a half hours. “Basically, right now it's easier to fly up here, it's a lot quicker for me and it's real convenient,” he says.

After a kiss goodbye, Diane Rector is heading to Minneapolis. It's simpler to fly to her connection in Billings than drive. “My husband would have to take a day off and waste a vacation day which he'd rather use for elk hunting,” she explains.

The holiday season is the busiest for the Lewistown Airport, but during the fall hunters from out of state come and meet up with outfitters at the ariport. All year long travelers take the plane to catch the train in Havre where the Amtrak stops. “It's definitely a good thing for Lewistown,” Rector adds.

The recent law will ensure these travelers can fly through 2015. Something Senator Max Baucus fought for. “If they didn't fly, those communities, some of them, would dry up. So it's really, really important,” he says.

The only way a city in Montana would be dropped from program is if it sees less than 10 passengers a day. Most flights now meet that requirement, but Silver Airways will work to make sure the planes remain flying. “We just have to make sure that we're reliable, that the price is good and is such that passengers go out and use the flights,” says Mickey Bowman, the vice president of essential air service for Silver Airways.

Without the help from the government, Bowman says the fares would double.

Silver Airways is paid for every complete flight. The planes even fly if there are no passengers on board. Bowman says the route from Billings to Sidney is the most popular.

Each one way ticket costs $75 including fees and taxes. Just like at big airports, essential air passengers go through security. Unlike big airports, in Lewistown parking is free.

Silver Airways is also working on a flight from Billings to Helena. It would not be part of essential air service and would cost more than $75 each way. Bowman says it could be up and running by May.

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