Great Falls airport traffic down, but projects ongoing

Air traffic is down significantly at the Great Falls International Airport but there’s a lot of activity on the hill.

There’s only a few flights through Great Falls now that are shared with other Montana cities, but Airport Director John Faulkner said he’s hearing flights start returning in July.

In the meantime, the airport is planning improvement projects and paying off debt service with federal funding through the CARES Act.

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The Great Falls airport received about $3.9 million and Faulkner told the airport board during their May 26 meeting that the plan is to pay off three sets of bonds this month totaling about $2 million.

Those bonds were from the snow building, apron and 2003 terminal remodel projects.

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By reducing the outstanding debt, it will allow the airport to subsidize the airline rates in the hopes of avoiding rate shock during and after COVID-19

Airports charge airlines a fee to cover the costs of improvements and since revenues are down with low activity, airports may have to increase fees to airlines to balance their budgets.

Other upcoming projects that would normally be paid by airport fees include about $111,000 for a fuel tank farm remediation, about $30,000 in annual escalator maintenance; a $390,000 loading bridge and other operating expenses.

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The airport is able to use CARES funds for those expenses and should air activity return faster, they’ll use the funds toward other projects in the spring, Faulkner told the board.

The board approved up to $500,000 for bathroom remodels that will include replacing counters and drywall/tile with easier to clean materials to make it easier as well as improve the airport’s ability to sanitize surfaces post-COVID. It will also include replacing toilets with hardwired automated systems.

Faulkner said they’re also looking into purchasing mobile hand sanitizing stations.

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The third phase of road improvements is also coming up as Love’s is expected to break ground in the next few weeks on construction of the new truck stop. That will involved some trenching for utility crossings and other changes to the rod, as well as adjusting it for the Montana National Guard planned new entryway. Part of that roadway project will not be eligible for federal funds since it won’t be used exclusively for airport traffic so that portion will have to be funded from other sources.

Faulkner said staff wants to start design on that project and a deicing ramp so should their be an infrastructure bill next year, the airport will have projects ready to go.

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There are also mixed reports, Faulkner said, of some airports not proceeding with planned projects due to COVID-19 so their government funds will go back into the pot and the Great Falls airport can be in line for those funds if it’s available.

“We do expect a two to three year recovery,” Faulkner said, so the goal is to keep costs lower to airlines. “We want to come out of this as cheap as possible, creating great opportunity.”

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If the Great Falls airport stays cheaper at a low activity level, as activity increases, the airport becomes proportionately cheaper and “it sets us up really really well to compete in the gaining service back market. There’s going to be a boom in leisure traffic,” Faulkner said. “I think Great Falls and even Montana, because we haven’t had the significant COVID pressure of these other areas, might see activity faster than other areas.”

But there are a lot of things in motion including what the rules will be regarding how close passengers can sit to each other on planes, reducing capacity, which will cause major market shifts, Faulkner said, and it may hinder the ability of smaller communities to maintain air service.

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The airport is also working with the 120th Airlift Wing to complete installation of the lighting system for their assault landing zone. The system will allow pilots to turn the normal lighting system on and off to train with their infrared system. Currently, the Guard uses a mobile system that takes time to move and set up, Faulkner said.

Great Falls is set to host schedulers from the airlines in September and Faulkner said he’s hoping that will still happen.

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Airport staff have extended the event to the weekend prior, inviting airline officials to bring their families to Great Falls and do outdoor activities since many are coming from areas with more pandemic restrictions. Local outfitters and businesses have been offering items and sponsorships to be able to talk with airlines about what the region has to offer or getting their items on to planes to help grow business and potential flight routes out of Great Falls.

“We were really excited to be connecting Montana to these airlines,” Faulkner said.