Helena, Mont., Airport Pursues Denver Routes with Frontier, United Express

Denver-based Frontier Airlines is buying more planes, and looking for places to fly them to.

Earlier this month, the Helena Regional Airport was one of some 50 airports across the west encouraged by Frontier to submit a bid for service from the airline. Manager Ron Mercer said the Helena airport will throw its hat into the ring.

"They're basically saying that they're buying more planes and they want to feed their (Denver) hub more," he said. "There will be some interesting proposals put forth for sure."

Frontier, which boarded its first customers in 1994, flies to 55 cities across the country and into Mexico and Canada from its Denver hub, with Billings (one daily flight) the airline's only current Montana destination.

At a chamber of commerce transportation committee meeting Tuesday, Mercer also said the airport would be interested in drawing United Express service to Denver as well.

United Express, which currently serves Missoula, Bozeman, Great Falls and Billings, would bring certain advantages over Frontier. For one, the United Airlines route map is more extensive, giving Helena travelers many more options for connections through the Denver hub.

Also, SkyWest Airlines, which currently contracts with Delta for local flights to Salt Lake City, also contracts with United Express, so adding that carrier would mean little additional infrastructure or equipment would be needed here to get the service started. While Helena has less air traffic than other airports in the state, Mercer can tout the city's central location, within a two-hour drive of every big city save Kalispell and Billings.

If Helena does lure Frontier service, it would likely be a 70-seat turboprop plan like those currently used by Horizon for flights to Seattle.

Frontier's extensive request for proposals asks for extensive technical information on the airport facilities as well as a demographic analysis of the local market and what incentive or marketing programs might be offered. The deadline is Janurary, and Frontier expects to make a decision by June.

Mercer said the airport will likely hire a consulting firm to help with its proposals for both Frontier and United Express. The Eugene, Ore.-based Sixel Consulting Group boasts of helping underserved airports lure additional flights.

"You have to be careful when you push for service and they turn you down. It gets more difficult to get in the door," Mercer said. Mercer said that in addition to looking at new carriers, the consultant will study the airport's current flight schedule to see if improvements can be made with the airlines already here.

In particular, he said, a number of business travelers have complained about the September elimination of the 6 a.m. SkyWest flight to Salt Lake City, which made it possible to be on the East Coast in time for afternoon meetings.

SkyWest's local manager said he doesn't expect the early-bird flight back on the schedule in the near future.

"There's no speculation that it will come back soon," Ben Racicot said.

"I would say that the soonest we could see that would be May or June." Also, the daily Northwest to Minneapolis has been more than 90 percent full, Mercer said, raising the possibility of either a second flight or a larger plane.

September was another down month for airline boardings across the state, though load factors are up, meaning fewer planes are flying but the remaining flights are more crowded.

According to data collected by the Montana Aeronautics Division, Helena's September passenger count of 14,344 was 6.3 percent below 2005. For the first nine months of the year, the airport served 131,191 passengers, a 6.5 percent decrease from the previous year.

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