As renovations, improvements ramp up, Tester gets look at Billings airport's progress

Billings Gazette

by Mike Ferguson

The man who’s overseeing upcoming improvements to the Billings Logan International Airport got the chance Wednesday to show what’s planned to the senator who helped secure some of the needed funding.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, took nearly an hour Wednesday morning for an airport tour led by Kevin Ploehn, Billings’ director of aviation and transit.

Mayor Tom Hanel and about a dozen airport employees, tourism officials and boosters joined Ploehn to show Tester around.

Tester recently announced $750,000 in federal funding to help bring direct flights between Billings and Dallas, as well as $1 million for airport improvements. On top of that, Congress recently passed — and President Barack Obama signed — a bill to continue essential air service, which subsidizes flights between Billings and smaller Eastern Montana communities.

One of the first stops was the space in and around the Cape Air holding area on the B Concourse, where single-person bathrooms and a concession area will be added.

One challenge in a plan to upgrade the airport’s passenger terminals, Ploehn said, is that the airport was built in 1958 and added to in 1978 and 1990. “We’re trying to get all these points to match,” Ploehn explained.

Another is the simple fact that the airport must be kept open, even during major construction.

“You can’t just shut down an airport,” he said.

Steve Wahrlich, who chairs the Tourism Business Improvement District, showed Tester a newly decorated area near the stairs and escalator leading to baggage claim. The display includes highlights of what to do and see in Billings.

“Your eyes go to where they want to,” Tester said with a grin. “Mine went to the brewery district.”

Below the stairway and to the left, Ploehn showed an area that will soon feature a kiosk with touchscreens to help visitors explore the area. 

After the tour, Tester took a few minutes to talk with the group. He started off by acknowledging the importance of reliable air travel — not only to the tourism industry, but to the business community.

“Kevin talked about the challenges of meeting 21st century needs. Unfortunately, that costs money,” Tester said. “I’m happy the (Federal Aviation Administration funding) bill was passed. The challenge will be designing facilities that will meet people’s needs 10 to 20 years from now.”

“I don’t see Billings getting any smaller,” Ploehn said.

When Tester asked Ploehn whether American Airlines might cease nonstop service between Billings and Dallas once the subsidy goes away, Ploehn said he didn’t think so.

“American is less likely to do that,” Ploehn said. “If they come into a market, they want it to work out.”

The airline’s recently added seasonal service between Bozeman and Dallas should help Billings secure what officials hope would be year-round flights to Dallas.

“I think the activity they’ve seen in Bozeman has inspired them,” he said of American, adding that local officials plan another sales trip this fall to visit American Airlines officials in Dallas.

Ploehn and Tester spoke briefly about another challenge airlines face when expanding their service — the shortage of pilots as well as, to a lesser extent, flight attendants and mechanics.

Tester once again grinned.

“Better tell Rocky (Mountain College) to ramp up their (aviation) program,” he said.