Sunday, January 29, 2017

Helena Regional Airport (KHLN) traffic taking off: Record travelers seen in 2016

A record number of people traveled to and from the Helena Regional Airport in 2016. 

More than 103,000 people made their way through security and onto flights last year, while a little more than 102,000 departing from the airport. Together, arrivals and departures totaled 205,733, which eclipsed the 2011 record of 204,205, according to data compiled by Jeff Wadekamper, the airport's director.

The 2016 arrivals and departures also surpassed those from the previous year, when 199,376 travelers were tallied. And the number of travelers last year reflects a 22 percent increase over 2007.

Contributing to the 2016 increase is that Delta Air Lines is replacing its 50-seat regional jet aircraft with those capable of ferrying 65 and 76 passengers to meet peak demands, Wadekamper stated in a news release.

The move to larger aircraft expanded Delta Air Lines' seat capacity by 8.4 percent on its Helena service to Salt Lake City that fills, on average, 86 percent of the seats.

Delta Air Lines also provides service between Helena and Minneapolis and has used larger aircraft when demand for seats was greatest, Wadekamper noted.

United Airlines service from Helena to Denver, which began in 2008, also saw a 4.8 percent increase in travelers on those flights that typically had 89 percent of their seats filled.

United Airlines is also planning to switch from the 50-seat jets to those with a 76-seat capacity in a year or two, Wadekamper said.

And Alaska Airlines, which has reduced service between Seattle and Helena to only a single daily flight through most of 2016, saw 2.4 percent more seats filled compared to 2015, according to the airport director’s data. Demand for seats filed 70 percent on average for the year.

Alaska Airlines also has plans to switch from the turboprop aircraft, with a 76-seat capacity, to jets of the same size in a couple of years, he added.
Expansion plans

The record-setting 2016 number of passengers and plans for airlines to serve Helena with larger jets give added reason for the airport to move ahead with expanding the passenger waiting area and food services on the terminal’s second floor.

Each morning, three flights leave from Helena with the Minneapolis-bound Delta Air Lines’ flight departing as early as 5:20 a.m. and its Salt Lake City flight set for 6:20 a.m. The United Airlines’ service to Denver is scheduled to leave at 7:10 a.m.

“First thing in the morning, it’s pretty much a packed house right now,” Wadekamper said.

Not everyone who’s waiting for a flight has a place to sit, but the airport authority is moving ahead with an expansion that will begin this year on paper.

After architects and engineers design the airport terminal’s expansion, construction won’t happen until 2018, according to the timetable offered by Wadekamper.

The roughly $3 million project -- Wadekamper calls that a rough estimate -- is expected to take a year and will be done in phases to keep the airport open during construction.

An additional 1,250 square feet would be added to the terminal’s first floor while an estimated 2,950 square feet would be added to the building’s second floor. A ground-floor boarding area would be retained for current and future use.

The ground-floor boarding, which serves the 76-seat Alaska turboprop aircraft, was designed for 40 passengers.

He sees the expansion as meeting the airport’s needs for five to 10 years and said, “We’ve got to keep it affordable.”

Spending between $6 million to $8 million for this phase of the airport’s master plan and a second phase of it might be too much at this time, Wadekamper said.

“So it’s a careful balance between capacity and demand,” he added.

Funding for the project is anticipated to come primarily from federal funds the airport receives annually through the Airport Improvement Program. While this is expected to cover 90 percent of the project cost, a nationwide fee added on to airline tickets will pay for maybe 8 percent of the project.

The $4.50 passenger facility charge on each airline ticket applies to each of the first three segments of a traveler’s flight, if there are multiple stops before reaching a final destination.

Helena Regional Airport collects about $390,000 annually through this charge, Wadekamper said in October.

The remaining roughly 2 percent of the project’s cost is expected to come from the airport. Federal funds won’t cover improvements such as those for the airport’s restaurant, Wadekamper said.

The airport operates without any local taxes or mill levies, Wadekamper said, explaining that its revenue is divided roughly into thirds and funded by airlines, other aviation-related activities such as corporate air services and general aviation, and leasing parts of its 1,400 acres to several entities, including Boeing Co., Costco and Lee Enterprises.

Also contributing to the upcoming project could be the airlines that might want to upgrade customer services, Wadekamper noted.

Further driving the need for more passenger waiting areas is an anticipated move by Alaska Airlines to switch from turboprop to jet aircraft.

With this change, Alaska Airlines would move its passenger boarding area from the airport terminal’s ground floor, where people walk outside to board flights, to the second floor where the other airlines’ passengers are already crowded as they wait for their flights, Wadekamper has said.

In addition to providing more room on the terminal’s second floor for waiting passengers, the airport will need to install another “jet bridge” -- this is the enclosed walkway that links the terminal to arriving and departing flights -- to accommodate Alaska Airlines and perhaps another flight.

The two jet bridges currently serve the three daily Delta Air Lines and United Airlines flights.

The expansion, while meeting current needs, will be even more critical if the airport is successful in its bid to add new air service.

The airport authority was unsuccessful this year in obtaining funds through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Small Community Air Service Development Program to use in enticing Alaska Airlines to restore its second flight to Seattle.

The federal grant and local funds would have helped guarantee the Alaska Airlines wouldn’t lose money if it didn’t sell enough seats on a second Seattle flight serving Helena.

Communities that proposed new routes were favored in the latest round of funding by the Small Community Air Service Development Program, Wadekamper said in August.

Since failing to receive the $500,000 Small Community Air Service Development Program grant, airport officials began looking at how to modify an application to make it more competitive.

Seeking an Alaska Airlines route to Portland, Oregon, which has become the second most popular destination for Helena travelers, with service to Seattle is seen as creating a more competitive grant application, Wadekamper noted previously.

A local fundraising effort is underway to raise $100,000 by March 1 to use in its application for a $500,000 federal air service grant.

The airport authority anticipates hearing in mid-summer if the application is successful, which would allow it to begin discussions with Alaska Airlines for service to Portland, Oregon.

Plans for the grant and moving ahead with an expansion of the terminal building come after a year of infrastructure improvements that include a $989,000 reconstruction of a taxiway that links facilities on the airport’s north side with the runway.


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