The Helena Regional Airport Authority concluded its two-day Montana Airline Rendezvous that brought representatives of six airlines to the local airport in an effort to secure new flights.
The authority has raised more than $ 200,000 in financial and in-kind donations in support of its effort to recruit new air service, including a recent $ 20,000 pledge from Lewis and Clark County.
In a report on its air service development incentive program given to the Helena City Commission Tuesday evening, the authority said it is actively courting American Airlines in hopes of securing a direct flight to Dallas / Fort Worth International Airport with its more than 230 daily connections for Helena travelers.
It plans to use the money raised to offer revenue guarantees to American Airlines, something airport funds cannot legally be spent on.
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The airport will also utilize a portion of its more than $ 1 million US Department of Transportation Small Community Air Service Development Grant awarded in 2021 to waive up to $ 360,000 in airport fees for the airline company over two years.
Of the 78 applicants for those grant dollars last cycle, only 22 were chosen. Of those 22, Helena’s airport received the largest amount, and it represents the largest award any Montana airport has received in the history of the grant program.
Airport Director Jeff Wadekamper said in an interview Thursday that representatives of Delta, United and Alaska airlines, all of which currently service Helena, as well as Southwest, Allegiant and Southern, a small commuter airline, attended the rendezvous.
Wadekamper said the event afforded his team more face time with the airlines than a simple visit to a headquarters or national convention would.
“We had great discussions and got to show off our community,” he said. “I think it opened a lot of eyes to all that’s happening in Helena.”
Though American Airlines was not in attendance, Wadekamper said the DFW deal is far from dead.
He said the Department of Transportation must approve the spending of the grant money already awarded to the airport authority. Almost two years ago when this initiative began, the authority’s sights were set on a flight to Phoenix, but Wadekamper said through continued discussions with American Airlines, it was determined Dallas would be a better starting point.
As such, the authority amended its plan and is seeking approval. Wadekamper said that approval should come soon, at which time the authority can begin working with American Airlines again.
Community businesses and organizations have contributed just shy of $ 106,000 to the effort.
St. Peter’s Health contributed $ 15,000.
The Helena Tourism Alliance contributed $ 12,000.
The Helena Area Chamber of Commerce and Opportunity Bank ponied up $ 10,000 each.
Lewis and Clark County also allocated $ 20,000 to the effort to bring the DFW direct flight to Helena.
Lewis and Clark County Chief Administrative Officer Roger Baltz said the pledge is tied to the DFW flight, but that the county is open to further discussions if the airport authority should pivot to attracting a different flight.
Baltz said the county commission understands the importance of air travel for “quality of life and economic vitality.”
Baltz also noted the county has contributed $ 20,000 to the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. The county has not joined the rail authority, which wants to restore passenger rail service across southern Montana, but Baltz said the money pledged to that effort will help pay for research needed.
The city of Helena has provided a letter of support to the airport for its air service development, but no financial contribution as of yet.
“I let (Airport Director Jeff) Wadekamper know that we’re at the end of our budget process, that it may be an eligible request under some community request for (American Rescue Plan Act) funding and so I just left it at that, that the door’s not closed. The commission could further consider it, “interim City Manager Tim Burton told the city commissioners during Wednesday’s administrative meeting.
The city is currently developing a process for the public to request any ARPA money left over after it plugs holes in its departments’ capital improvement budgets.
In-kind donations for marketing support from the community have totaled $ 107,000 to date, including a $ 25,000 pledge from the Independent Record.
Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins advocated for the city at the Montana Airline Rendezvous, which concluded Thursday.
Wadekamper said many if not all airlines, still grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, are dealing with personnel shortages and attempting to scale back up to pre-pandemic levels of service.
“None of the airlines are really in a growth mode yet,” he said.
But many are planning for growth in the near future, and Wadekamper said, as they begin to “re-establish their networks, Helena will hopefully be at the front of their minds.”