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Montana Airports See Slow Recovery, Say Federal Stimulus Was Critical

The interior of the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport
Rachel Cramer
The Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport lobby on Feb. 3, 2021.

When air passenger numbers in Montana dropped 95 percent at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, airport managers worried about how they’d stay in business. Closures would have had lasting ripple effects in communities that depend on tourists, business travelers and fast access to medical hubs. But airports are pulling through, even as passenger numbers have not fully recovered.

This time last year, Montana’s busiest airport was breaking passenger records. Then COVID-19 infections exploded around the world; business and leisure travel to Bozeman essentially came to a standstill.

“When we got into April and May, we were barely operating in terms of passengers,” Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport Director Brian Sprenger said. “We would see about 50 passengers a day compared to what would normally be about 1500 a day departing the airport. So it was very dramatic.”

The number of Bozeman airport passengers in April dropped 97 percent compared to a year prior.

Billings Logan International Airport Director Kevin Ploehn said he witnessed a similar fallout.

“We were having like 30 passengers a day. I was like, ‘What the heck?’ I had no idea how to budget for that, and I’ve been doing this for a long time.”

Ploehn said he re-worked his budget four times last spring.

“[I was] trying to think, what’s the impact on car rentals? What’s the impact on parking? What’s the impact on my restaurants? What’s the impact on my gift shop? Trying to calculate all that stuff,” Ploehn said. “Then I’m thinking, if the airlines start cancelling flights, which they were doing, what’s the impact on my landing fee revenues? I’m going, ‘Holy smokes.’ I was like pulling my hair out trying to figure this out.”

Ploehn said he was preparing to make big budget cuts and hit pause on a much needed multi year renovation project that would add more amenities and gates.

Airport administrators in Montana and across the U.S. were facing similar decisions as they hemorrhaged revenue with no clear end in sight. Without a quick infusion of funds, many airports risked bankruptcy or reductions in service, which in Montana would have long term impacts on access to medical care, the state’s recreation and tourism industries, and residents who are one flight away from a business meeting.

Ploehn said the CARES Act, which funneled nearly $74 million to more than five dozen airports in Montana, came at a critical time. The Billings airport received a $12.7 million grant, which Ploehn said filled in lost revenue and allowed the airport to continue renovations.

Bozeman Airport Director Brian Sprenger said more than $15 million in federal relief last spring made it possible for the airport to keep cargo operations and life flights going, cover payroll and supply costs, and help essential workers get where they needed to go.

“The CARES Act definitely helped us weather that storm, and it helps us as we still are weathering it in certain areas,” Sprenger said.

Sprenger said the number of passengers in January was down by about one third of where it was a year ago, but the airport has been slowly, steadily recovering since last spring, primarily due to inbound leisure travelers, which are back to near normal numbers.

Sprenger said the stimulus from the CARE Act provides a two year cushion to absorb the impact of revenue losses and frees up other funding to continue the airport’s long term expansion projects. In November, the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport added four more gates for a total of 12, and put in the infrastructure to upgrade the baggage handling area. Sprenger says the airport’s long term plan includes 20 gates.

Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Daryl Schliem said the airport’s increased service over the last decade has played a role in Bozeman’s economic growth. He said easy access to air travel has helped attract high paying jobs, tourists, college students and athletes, and that a lot of locals depend on direct flights to conduct business in other states.

“Any community that’s out there should look at their airport being as critical an infrastructure piece as fiber optic, as roads and bridges, as water and sewer,” Schliem said.

Airports in Montana also help people get to life saving or specialized medical care, especially in more rural and frontier communities.

Tony Dolphay is the manager of the Havre City County Airport, which is one of seven Montana locations with flights subsidized by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service program. Dolphay said the majority of passengers are going to and from Billings, the largest medical hub in a four state region.

“We do have a few people who are connecting [to] other airlines in Billings and the hub, but the greater percentage usually go down for medical,” Dolphay said.

Driving to Billings takes four and a half hours compared to just over an hour by air.

“It’s the most economical and efficient way to get down and back,” Dolphay said.

When health care providers cancelled and delayed medical procedures last spring to prepare for a surge in COVID-19 cases, Dolphay said passenger numbers dropped off. The federally subsidized Essential Air Service considered scaling back flights, but Dolphay said he pushed back on the idea, saying first officers still needed to log hours to become captains and that the Havre airport was going to be open anyway for emergency medical flights.

Dolphay said reducing service in the short term is also risky because it can lead to long term service cuts and layoffs.

“Small communities can’t afford to have any more people unemployed,” Dolphay said.

Dolphay said the EAS, which received $56 million from the CARES Act, decided not to reduce service for the Havre airport. The airport also received a $30,000 federal grant through the federal stimulus package, which Dolphay said has helped cover additional cleaning and sanitation expenses during the pandemic.

Overall, the Havre City County Airport, as well as others along the Hi-Line, saw less drastic drop offs in passenger numbers as compared to some of the larger airports in the state that rely more heavily on business travelers, including Helena, Great Falls, Missoula and Billings.

Billings Airport Director Kevin Ploehn said the number of passengers in 2020 was roughly half of what it was the year prior.

“It kind of shows you the impact the business travelers have on our market when they stay home,” Ploehn said.

He said the Billings Airport used to be full of people in business attire and briefcases. Now Ploehn sees some inbound travelers carrying skis and backpacks but most are locals headed to the Sun Belt.

Ploehn said he expects passenger numbers will get back to normal in 2022, after the majority of people in the U.S. have received the COVID-19 vaccine and the number of people sick and dying slows down.

“I think the business traveler is going to be the last to come back because they had to learn to adapt. And guess what, they learned it works, too,” Ploehn said. “But at some point, I think they’ll be back. You can only do Zoom meetings for so long without reaching out and meeting a customer.”

Until that time comes, airlines have shifted their attention to leisure travelers, people looking for some escapism during the pandemic. Airlines have been expanding escape routes to places like Montana by adding more direct flights from large U.S. cities to Missoula, Kalispell and Bozeman.

Bozeman Airport Director Brian Sprenger says this is part of the reason why Montana’s airports are better off than the national average.

“[Airlines] have plenty of airplanes now so they’re looking for any market that people are willing to fly to so that has opened up some opportunities here, and I think that will probably continue going into this next year,” Sprenger said.