Daily non-stop flight to Chicago starts June 7 in Great Falls

A daily non-stop United Airlines flight to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport will start June 7 at the Great Falls International Airport.

The airline will be using a 76-seat jet with a first class section, adding more than 3,500 inbound seats to Great Falls this summer. The daily flight runs through Aug. 20.

Tickets for the flights are now on sale.

O’Hare is the second largest connecting hub in the U.S. with service to more than 200 destinations in the U.S. and abroad, according to the Great Falls airport. The daily flight opens new connecting route opportunities for Great Falls throughout the Midwest and East Coast.

Rebecca Engum, director of Great Falls Montana Tourism, said that Chicago area residents make up 64 percent of all Illinois expenditures when they visit Great Falls.

Previously, web traffic to the Great Falls tourism website included 6 percent of visitors from Chicago. Now, 24 percent of the web traffic is coming from Chicago, Engum said.

“The interest has grown so much,” she said.

The additional flights have been secured through the Low Cost Airfare Initiative, which is a partnership of the Great Falls Airport Authority, Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and Great Falls Tourism. Funding for the initiative was donated by several dozen local businesses and individuals including the Tourism Business Improvement District. Since this initiative began in 2011, the average airfare in Great Falls declined by more than 6 percent while national airfares have increased more than 4 percent. Great Falls has had the lowest average annual airfare in Montana for the past four years, according to the Great Falls airport.

John Faulkner, Great Falls airport director, said when he has hired in 2010, one of the things he heard from the community was concern about airfare out of Great Falls steadily creeping up.

“The community said we need cheaper airfare,” Faulkner said.

To do that the initiative was created and the funds they raise act as a guarantee to airline considering new or expanded air service from the Great Falls airport, Faulkner said. The airport makes agreements for each new or expanded airline or flight service to give them some guarantee the new service will be profitable. Faulkner said they come to some agreement based on forecasts and data in each case to set a dollar level where the funds would kick in to make up any losses for the airline.

Faulkner said the fund has been used minimally since it’s creation and less than $50,000 has been spent in making up airline losses in Great Falls.

“This is how it gets done now,” he said, and that airlines won’t take the risk without some form of guarantee. He said it cost the airline roughly $1 million to run weekend service in Great Falls.

The airport is also using funds from their Small Community Air Service Development grant from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to supplement the guarantees. This is the third and final year they’ll have that grant, Faulkner said.

The new flights open opportunity for local travelers and keeps airfare costs lower but also benefits for local tourism, Engum and Shane Eztwiler, Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce president said Monday.

“Tourism is a top economic driver is Cascade County,” Etzwiler said.

Chicago makes up about 2 percent of tourism in Great Falls, but there aren’t many markets that make up more than that on their own Engum said.. Alberta remains the top source of tourism in the area.

That 2 percent is people from Chicago who come to Great Falls and spend the nigh, shop, dine and spend money. Engum said that about 2.2 million people pass through Great Falls annually on their way to other Montana destinations and roughly two percent of that traffic also comes from Chicago.

The Airport Authority, partnering with Great Falls Tourism, has been promoting the GenuineMontana.com marketing campaign in Chicago since 2012 and in that time, summer air traffic from Chicago has grown by more than a third, according to the airport.