Saturday, December 31, 2016

Helena Regional Airport Authority wants new direction for restaurant services

Jeff Wadekamper, the airport's director, shown here in 2014, said vending machines could be used in the interim while the airport plans for the long term.  

Helena Regional Airport Authority will offer the current restaurant tenant only a short-term lease instead of a renewal as it begins planning for the future.

Angela Blixt, owner of Captain Jack’s Restaurant in the airport terminal, will be offered a six-month lease, the airport authority board agreed, with monthly options afterward.

The airport authority also decided to provide her with a 60-day notice of its intent not to renew the lease to comply with the agreement’s provisions.

The six months and monthly renewals is seen as giving the airport authority time to consider future restaurant and snack bar services.

A committee of airport authority members is slated to report back to the board in February or March with its recommendations.

The current lease called for $609 per month rent plus 10 percent if the restaurant’s annual gross revenue exceeds $400,000.

Blixt did not attend the airport authority meeting but said later in a telephone interview that she anticipated changes as her 10-year lease was coming due for a renewal. The contract, she explained, called for two-year renewals after the initial 10 years.

The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. until the last afternoon flight and closes about 3:30 p.m. she said. The snack bar, which she also operates inside the secured passenger waiting area, opens at 4:30 a.m.

People arriving for the morning flights are able to get through security quickly, so they don’t plan to be there early enough to eat breakfast, Blixt said.

The airport used to have a flight about every hour, she said of air traffic when she first purchased the business.

But now, the number of flights has dwindled and from after the last morning flight has departed until early afternoon there is no one at the airport, she said.

On Friday, there were three morning flights that began departure at 5:35 a.m. with the last one leaving at 7:06 a.m.

The airport’s schedule showed a Delta Air Lines flight arriving from Salt Lake City at about 1 p.m. with its return scheduled to leave at about 1:20 p.m.

An Alaska Airlines’ Seattle flight was due to arrive about 2:50 p.m. and depart at 3:25 p.m. A Delta Air Lines flight from Salt Lake City was scheduled to arrive at 5:30 p.m. and depart 25 minutes later.

Three other flights were to arrive into the evening with the final one shortly after 10 p.m.

She didn’t blame the airport authority for the decrease in the number of flights and said the airlines make those decisions.

Even still, she described the restaurant operation as a struggle and explained, “It’s pretty hard to be open if nobody’s there.”

“We don’t have the traffic. We don’t have people dropping people off very often.”

Keeping the business open for those who came for coffee in the morning proved unprofitable, Blixt said and noted that staffing had gone from the roughly 40 people she initially employed to about nine.

A consultant she hired three or four years ago recommended she close the restaurant, she said.

Revenue from the restaurant’s catering business and the early-morning snack bar help support the restaurant, Blix said.

The restaurant is listed for sale with Century 21 for $289,000 although Blixt said she’s not optimistic it will sell. She doesn’t see the restaurant as ever being self-supporting.

“It’s never going to,” she said.

She isn’t interested in bidding to keep the business should the airport authority seek bids through a request for proposals to address what it wants to see in food, service and hours.

To be told that her lease won’t be renewed but a short-term option offered instead, she said, “It’s not disappointing to me at all. It’s like a relief.”

The airport authority noted its uncertainty whether Blixt would agree to the six-month lease, and Jeff Wadekamper, the airport’s director, said vending machines could be used temporarily while planning for the long term.

Airport officials will begin planning in 2017 for an expansion of secured passenger areas in the terminal with construction in 2018 to provide more room, add a third enclosed walkway that links the terminal building with commercial aircraft and to create snack bar seating and a location that isn’t crowded by the passenger security lanes. An area for gift sales is also envisioned with the expansion.

No changes are currently seen for the restaurant that’s located in the portion of the airport where access is not controlled by security service.

The need for larger passenger-waiting areas is being driven by both the number of people departing from Helena Regional Airport -- a record number could be set this year and exceed the 102,358 in 2011 -- and the move by airlines away from 50-seat aircraft to 76-seat and larger aircraft.

Passenger numbers neared the record mark in 2015 with 101,146 people departing from the airport, Wadekamper said.

Unlike last year at this time when Alaska Airlines provided a second daily flight to accommodate holiday travelers, that flight isn’t being offered, Wadekamper said, adding he was told by the airline that it wasn’t able to provide the service.


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