Helena Independent Record: Helena airport secures federal grant to attract service to Phoenix

by Nolan Lister

The Helena Regional Airport secured a little more than a million dollars in grant funds from the U.S. Department of Transportation to help attract new service to Arizona.

As part of the federal department’s Small Community Air Service Development Program, the about $1 million will be packaged with local fundraising dollars to create an incentive package intended to woo an airline into starting a route from Helena’s airport to Phoenix.

According to Airport Director Jeff Wadekamper, some of the money will be spent on marketing of the new route. Other dollars from the new incentive package could be spent on minor terminal upgrades, most likely at the ticketing windows.

The bulk of the money will be kept as revenue guarantees for the first three years.

Should the airline that ends up providing a route to Phoenix lose revenue in the route’s first three years, it can appeal to the Department of Transportation to draw down those funds to cover the loss.

“The goal is of course is the airline won’t need it,” Wadekamper said.

He said the money may also be used to offer fee waivers for up to a year that could result in about $120,000 in savings, further incentivizing any airline that takes advantage of the opportunity.

Wadekamper said American Airlines is the “logical choice” as Phoenix is a hub for the Fort Worth, Texas-based airline.

American Airlines wrote a letter in support of Helena Regional Airport as part of its application for the air service grant.

Wadekamper said with so much changing over the past year and a half, he and his staff will need to reconnect with American Airlines.

“We’ll have to see what their interest is and what their timeline looks like,” he said. “It would be great to get in place by the fall with so many Montanans traveling (to Phoenix) in the winter.”

He said reconvening with American Airlines is the airport’s next step once the air service grant is in hand.

Wadekamper added that Phoenix has been near the top of the airport’s list of priority destinations for future service for years now.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in an email sent Tuesday applauded the Department of Transportation for awarding the funds to Helena Regional Airport.

“As Montana’s economy continues to grow, investments like this in Helena’s infrastructure keep proving that our state is open for business,” Tester wrote. “Supporting new routes to Montana helps keep us connected, will help create good paying jobs, boost tourism, and provide more flexibility for travel as the country opens back up.”

Wadekamper said the support of elected officials and the broader community has been instrumental in his airport’s recent successes.

“We’ve had support across a wide spectrum of stakeholders,” Wadekamper said, referencing everyone from politicians to the area’s largest employers to individual citizens. “That’s essential to securing grants like this.”

It has been a lucrative few years for Helena’s airport in regard to grant funding.

In mid-June the airport reopened to commercial airline flights following the completion of a $10.8 million runway overhaul project funded through a Federal Aviation Administration Airport Improvement Program grant.

The airport now has five flights a day offered by three major carriers: Delta, United and Alaska.

Helena Regional Airport also received more than $7 million in grant funding from the same FAA program to help pay for a $12 million terminal renovation unveiled in July of 2020.

“We’re either really lucky or really good at getting grants,” Wadekamper said with a chuckle.

“We’ve been able to accomplish a lot with that money,” he said. “It is definitely very helpful to what we’re doing.”

He said the new opportunity this air service grant affords is another reason to get excited.

“We’re very excited about this opportunity because they don’t come around very often,” he said.

According to Wadekamper, the last air service grant Helena was awarded was used to attract United Airlines in 2008, when the company began service to Denver.

“That route has been successful and growing every year,” he said, adding that bringing in new airline brands gives fliers more options and creates competition among the airlines.

“We’re very excited about this opportunity,” he said. “There will be much more to come from this.”