Thursday, December 24, 2015

Helena Regional Airport (KHLN) prepared for snow, but fog can cause delays

Snow probably won't be the cause of any local flight delays during the Christmas season. 

Helena Regional Airport has spent millions of dollars -- airport Director Jeff Wadekamper pegs recent spending at $8 million -- to move and remove snow.

But fog is another matter, and one he primarily blames for delays between Dec. 16 last year and Jan. 5 this year.

Statistically speaking, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, all but eight arriving flights between mid-December 2014 and early January of this year touched down on time.

Passengers arriving here on the big day itself, Dec. 25, didn’t do so well. Only one out of three flights touched down when scheduled.

Helena Regional Airport -- with enough pavement on its runway, taxiways and other areas that accommodate airlines to create a two-lane road from Helena to Townsend 35 miles away -- is ready for wintry weather.

“Once it starts snowing, we go into snow removal operation,” Wadekamper said.

Snow plows, sanding trucks, vehicles with brooms and blowers are part of the armada of vehicles that wait for the arrival of wintry weather.

“Our snow removal fleet is really the best of the best out there,” he added.

Wadekamper is particularly pleased with one of the vehicles that does it all: plows, brooms and then finishes clearing airport pavement with a blower.

Work that formerly took two people and two pieces of equipment is now the domain of this vehicle that was purchased in 2012 for $836,000.

“That thing has been a tremendous asset. It can really cover a lot of ground,” he said.

But winter fog is another matter. As Wadekamper looks at the Bureau of Transportation Statistics for the days before and after Christmas, he said fog was the likely culprit that delayed arriving flights.

Fog is probably the biggest problem for the airport during the winter, he added.

Three flights depart each morning between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. However, Alaska Airlines will resume a second daily flight to Helena from Dec. 18 to Jan. 5, Wadekamper said.

He expects the flight to arrive shortly before midnight and depart with the others early in the morning.

Alaska Airlines discontinued that second flight this year, despite travelers’ concerns at the loss of service.

A midday Delta flight from Salt Lake City arrives daily about 12:30 p.m. and is on its way back shortly after 1 p.m.

An Alaska Airlines flight arrives and departs mid-afternoons and on weekdays except Tuesday at 5 p.m. A Delta flight from Salt Lake City arrives and then departs a half-hour later.

A trio of evening flights -- the addition of the Alaska Airlines flight will make it four during the holidays -- arrives and then departs the next morning.

For January through September of this year, travelers to Helena arrived on time better than 89 percent of the time. And when they were late, a category entitled “aircraft arriving late” was to blame more than 4 percent of the time.

Air carrier delays were to blame nearly 3.5 percent of the time, according to the bureau’s statistics. Cancellations or aircraft being diverted each accounted for only one-fourth of 1 percent.

And weather overall this year has delayed only a little more than 0.5 percent of arriving flights.

From January through September of this year, travelers arrived here on time about 2.5 percent more often than the overall national average of 86.48 percent for all airports.

To be expected, the weather often is to blame for arriving flight delays in Helena, which is served by hubs in Denver, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and Seattle. A delay is considered to be when the flight arrives 15 minutes or more behind schedule. 

Flight delays in January, March and April were because of weather. May was a toss-up. Weather and non-weather causes equally hinder airlines from meeting schedules.

January 2015 had delayed flights on eight days, the worst month through September. February, March and May each had six days with arriving flight delays.

But June, a month that can conjure images of green grass, balmy skies and gentle breezes, in 2015 handed travelers to Helena with flight delays on seven days.

The airport here is a busy place in December. Eighty percent of the seats were filled on flights boarding here last December, and better than 84 percent of seats were occupied in December 2013, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics noted.

While demand for seats in December 2012 was better than 79 percent, the annual tallies for recent years shows an increasing trend from annual demand from 2012 when nearly three out of four seats on average was filled for the year.

Getting a seat on a flight out of Helena in 2005 would have been easier, as about 58 percent of the seats were filled on average that year.

In 2005, there were a lot more flights crisscrossing the nation’s skies, Wadekamper said.

And in the intervening years, airlines have merged and made better use of their schedules, he added to explain why flights today have fewer empty seats.

Having 80 percent or more of the seats on a flight filled is good for Helena Regional Airport, he continued and explained, “That’s where you want to be No. 1 to maintain the service that you have.”

The number of people boarding flights here has been on the rise since July, which saw a 1.3 percent increase over July of 2014, Wadekamper noted in an email. That trend continued. Compared to the same months in 2014, boardings in August were up 4.7 percent and September saw a 6.5 percent increase. October had a 4.4 percent increase, and the number of passengers catching flights out of Helena in November was up 5 percent.

Having flights that are nearly full allows the airport to talk with airlines about perhaps serving Helena seasonally with larger jets or adding another flight, Wadekamper said.

“That’s really the key metric airlines are using today to decide if they’re going to stay in a market or expand in a market," he said. 

Regional comparison

Provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the following figures represent the percentage of flights that were not on time at each major Montana airport during the last three full calendar years.

Butte: 7.5 percent of all flights, 6.9 percent of departures, 8.1 percent of arrivals

Helena: 9 percent of all flights, 5.7 percent of departures, 12.3 percent of arrivals

Great Falls: 11.5 percent of all flights, 8.7 percent of departures, 14.2 percent of arrivals

Kalispell: 11.7 percent of all flights, 8.71 percent of departures, 14.7 percent of arrivals

Billings: 11.8 percent of all fights, 8.9 percent of departures, 14.8 percent of arrivals

Bozeman: 12.75 percent of all flights, 11.2 percent of departures, 14.3 percent of arrivals

Missoula: 14.75 percent of all flights, 13.3 percent of departures, 16.2 percent of arrivals

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