Federal funds help Helena airport plan for expansion

Helena Regional Airport is among 20 Montana airports sharing in nearly $10 million in federal funding for improvements and maintenance.

The funding was secured through provisions in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization, according to an announcement by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

Helena’s airport will receive $705,306 to fund the design of the terminal building’s expansion, the news release stated.

“The Helena airport plays a critical role in connecting our state. These needed infrastructure dollars will make a difference for passengers traveling through the Helena airport to meet Helena’s future needs,” Daines said in a statement.

The federal funding also includes $171,000 for the city of Townsend and Broadwater County for airport runway, apron and taxiway maintenance.

The money for Helena’s airport came through Airport Improvement Program funds, which it normally receives but this year was held up in Congress, Helena Regional Airport Director Jeff Wadekamper said.

“We’re very appreciative of the efforts of Senator Daines to get that funding in place for the Helena airport.

“It will be very important for the future terminal expansion project that will begin next year,” Wadekamper said. “This year we’ll be doing design and next year we’ll start construction.”

The airport is in the planning stages for an expansion projected to be between $6 million and $10 million. Airport authority commissioners have yet to finalize what work will be included in the project.

Planning has been ongoing to prepare the airport for the future and multiple phases of construction have been discussed.

What is currently envisioned for next year’s construction is creating additional second floor waiting room for passengers and ensuring the space is large enough to accommodate Alaska Airlines that has indicated it will be moving its boarding area from the airport’s ground floor to the second floor.

The shift in boarding area, Wadekamper has said, will come when the airline discontinues the use of turboprop aircraft that currently serve Helena and switches to jet aircraft.

A third of the covered walkways “jet bridges” that link airport terminals with aircraft is planned in the upcoming construction that would allow Helena’s airport to accommodate up to five aircraft at once.

This third jet bridge is important because airlines park late night flights here for early morning departures to larger airports where passengers can continue their travels.

Flights to Denver, Salt Lake City and Minneapolis already spend the night here for early morning departures.

If the airport is successful in its hopes of restoring the second Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle that was discontinued in August 2015. With its return, there would be a fourth aircraft here overnight, Wadekamper said.

The airport also hopes to seek a federal grant to entice Alaska Airlines to offer Helena service to Portland, Oregon.

Also affecting the potential cost for the expansion would be adding plumbing for future restrooms, which would be more cost effective than adding it later, and the installation of a second elevator.

“It’s a matter of what we think we can afford and what makes good operational sense,” Wadekamper noted previously.