Helena Makes Pitch to Frontier

Mar. 10 -- Compared to other states, Montanans are underserved and pay more for commercial air service than people in other parts of the country, a recent Department of Transportation study found.

According to the study, released late last year, Montanans pay $24 more per one-way ticket than the national average. In fairness, part of that cost covers the distance Montanans travel when they fly: an average of 1,300 miles each way, or 200 miles more than Americans as a whole.

Still, most would agree that additional, affordable flights would be helpful. To that end, Helena Regional Airport officials are talking to both Frontier Airlines and United Express about the possibility of adding service to those airlines' Denver hub. Helena travelers can currently reach hubs in Seattle, Salt Lake City and Minneapolis. Frontier, a low-cost airline based in Denver, late last year asked for proposals from dozens of airports within a regional jet's range of its Denver hub.

"We sent that to 65 (airports), and I think 64 came back, so we got great response," said spokesperson Joe Hodas. Hodas said decisions have yet to be made, but Frontier will likely add roughly 10 new destinations, give or take a couple, as a new fleet of regional jets comes into service.

Helena airport manager Ron Mercer and business development director Jeff Wadekamper recently followed up their proposal with a visit to Denver to meet with Frontier officials.

"We said, 'Just give us one flight and we'll show you what we're capable of,'" Mercer said. "We don't require that they sign up for some period of time; there's no lease, no commitment on their part."

Mercer said some of the conversation with Frontier centered on whether Helena would be an inbound market, meaning more trips to and from Helena would consist of passengers originating elsewhere, or an outbound market, meaning more passengers would be Montanans flying to somewhere else from here.

Selling Helena as an outbound market is to the local advantage, Mercer said, due to the Queen City's central location, with 540,000 people living within 120 miles. Selling Helena as an inbound market is harder, because other cities have the advantage of being closer to the national parks and ski resorts, the state's main tourist attractions.

At first glance, numbers don't appear to be in Helena's favor. Mercer said current data shows just eight people per day traveling from Helena to Denver. But that figure doesn't include travelers who leave here for Great Falls or Bozeman to make the trip to Colorado non-stop.

Frontier currently has nine regional jets in service through a contract with Horizon Air, but the airline will soon transition to a "third-party" carrier, Republic, with 17 new regional jets.

Frontier is also adding 10 new 74-seat turboprop jets similar to those Horizon uses for current flights between Helena and Seattle. So in total, Frontier's regional fleet will grow from nine to 27 planes, giving the airline the option of adding new destinations or increasing service on existing routes.

Hodas said additional destinations will be added during the next 18 months, as those planes become available.

Meanwhile, Mercer said a trip to Chicago to meet with United officials is scheduled for late this month. He said United Express, which already flies to Missoula, Bozeman and Great Falls, is showing more interest in Helena than it has in the past.

Mercer said it's his job to get the airline to look beyond the numbers at what's really happening in Helena.

"They know the numbers, but they don't know the development that's happening in Helena," he said. "With the number of housing starts here, the state and federal government, we've got a lot of people that are consistent travelers."

Mercer said the growth of the box-store retail segment here is proof that Helena can draw people from outlying areas and other cities to increase the number of passengers. The updated airport and cheapest parking in the state make Helena even more attractive to out-of-towners, he said.

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