Locals continue effort to raise funds, pursue new routes for Great Falls airport

Airport officials across the state met with airlines in Big Sky earlier this month in the hopes of growing air service in their communities.

To help that effort, local officials have been working to replenish the airline incentive program.

So far, the Tourism Business Improvement District, First Interstate Bank, D.A. Davidson, Cogswell Insurance, Pacific Steel and Recycling and the Great Falls Development Authority are among those that have contributed but they’re looking to raise additional funds to apply for the grants needed to secure additional airlines and routes.

The goal is to get $400,000 in the incentive fund.

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Shane Etzwiler of the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce said during the Sept. 25 Downtown Development Partnership meeting that about 75 percent of the goal had been raised so far.

Airport John Faulkner told The Electric this week that his takeaway from the meeting with airlines in mid-September was that all of the airlines were impressed by the growth of air service in Montana.

“It’s really an unprecedented time for route growth in Montana,” Faulkner told The Electric earlier this week. “It’s really an opportunity.”

The goals are to get a direct flight to California or potentially a direct flight to Texas, Faulkner said.

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The local leaders are hoping American or United would support a new flight to Los Angeles. Delta is not building new L.A. service, according to the airport.

L.A. is the third largest market at the Great Falls airport and is the largest market with no direct service, according to the airport.

Faulkner said he, the Chamber and Visit Great Falls Montana Tourism are still working on raising the funds for the incentive program and then will set up meetings at airline headquarters to talk about routes that are available and workable for Great Falls.

Once the applications for the Small Community Air Service Development Program, or SCASD, grant open later this year or early next year, the local group can apply leveraging the incentive program funds.

The SCASD program is under the U.S. Department of Transportation. The program is designed to help small communities address air service and airfare issues, is managed by the Associate Director, Small Community Air Service Development, under the Office of Aviation Analysis, according to USDOT.

The grant application requires a cash match, which is another reason Faulkner and Etzwiler, among others, are working to replenish the funding pot for the local incentive program.

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Under regulations, the airport isn’t allowed to provide profit/revenue guarantees to airlines, Faulkner said, so the funds pass through the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.

The incentive program started in Great Falls in 2007 and the funding pool was initially designed to bring in Frontier Airlines.

Faulkner told the TBID board in early July that Frontier only lasted four years but the consolidation of other airlines has opened markets and the Denver market is growing again.

The incentives were used to get grants and that allowed the airport to bring in the Chicago service that Faulkner told the TBID board resulted in “thousands of additional people” coming through the Great Falls airport.

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Faulkner told the TBID board in July that the impact since the incentive program’s inception equated to 20,000-30,000 more boardings annually compared to 2005-2011.

The community incentivized some carriers, but they’ve all experienced growth since the program started, he said.

“We don’t want to pick winners and losers,” Faulkner said, but want to increase the overall pie for Great Falls.

One of the goals is to bring Frontier back to Great Falls with a Denver flight since that’s one of the biggest markets for Great Falls.

In recent years, Frontier has been building a network out of Denver to new locations and bringing the airline here would likely drive down airfares by increasing traffic, Faulkner said.

Faulkner said that when Allegiant came to Great Falls in 2008, fares dropped about $30 across the board. A similar dip occurred when Frontier came to Great Falls, he said.

If Frontier came back, they could get 300-400 seats per week on the Great Falls-Denver route, he said.

In July, Faulkner and Shane Etzwiler presented their strategy and data to the Tourism Business Improvement District board and asked them to pledge funding to the incentive program.

During that meeting, Faulkner said. “the Frontier opportunity is immediate.”

He said the airport can work off a pledge to lock in summer service for 2020.

The TBID board voted to use $150,000 from their reserve and $40,000 from their marketing budget to put toward the airline incentive fund.

When Frontier was here previously, the airline was profitable and never drew on the profit guarantee, Faulkner said.

Faulkner said they conducted 1,000 surveys in 2017 and 59.6 percent of those deplaning in Great Falls said they’d spend at least one night in Great Falls.

“We’re at a crossroads in the industry,” Faulkner said in July.

Multiple airlines have dissolved and fewer seats are flying now than in 2000, he said. There are also fewer pilots, limited opportunity to expand service and airline management is still influenced by record breaking losses that ended with $100 oil about four years ago, he said.

“Airline incentives from communities are an absolute necessity for any new service,” Faulkner said.

Great Falls’ existing incentive fund will be exhausted this year, he said, and other Montana cities are offering incentives, including Bozeman, Billings, Missoula and Kalispell.

Some of those cities have funding support from their tourism business improvement districts and some such as Missoula have an economic development tax. Kalispell is growing fast despite high fares, he said, but Helena is the market to worry about.

Helena has incentives, but hasn’t been successful in getting a Department of Transportation grant yet. If Helena got a route Great Falls doesn’t have, that would be concerning, Faulkner said.

“That’s gonna be an issue, because people are certainly going to drive to Helena,” he said.

According to the airport’s website, “Bozeman whose immense incentive program has exceeded $8 million in the past 10 years has become the fastest growing airport in the country. Their boardings have doubled in the past 10 years. With new airlines and more destination cities, Bozeman is drawing leakage from airports throughout central Montana including Great Falls.”

Other factors impacting air service options include the changing size of passenger planes.

The 50 seat jet, which is the backbone of Great Falls carriers, is going out of service quickly.

“We’ve got to get to the next sized plane,” Faulkner said.

There’s a limited number of 76-seat jets so will be in demand for smaller markets, he said. Most airlines are now buying 100-seat planes, he said.

The Great Falls airport needs to get to that size and need two flights daily for business travel, he said.

“There’s a consolidation coming,” Faulkner said.

The 36-seat planes are out of service now and that change caused major problems for some cities, though some were able to rebuilt their air service with incentive programs.

“We think it’s important to jump on this now and grow traffic,” Faulkner said.

During the Airport Authority’s August meeting, Faulkner told the board that in addition to the major airlines, startup Moxy, would also be attending the air service meeting in Big Sky in September.

Moxy has purchased 60 Airbus A220-300 aircraft, which seat 120-150 passengers.