Reports on the status of American Airlines’ debut into the Billings market and the progress of remodeling and adding to the Billings airport, topped the agenda of the Big Sky Economic Development (BSED) board meeting.
Construction on a remodel at the airport is well underway, reported Shane Ketterling, Assistant Manager of the airport. He also reported that administrators of Billings Logan International Airport met in mid-December with the engineers and designers of A&E Architects and Morrison Maierle, to begin the process of designing a new concourse for the airport and generally updating the entire facility—a project expected to cost between $30 million to $50 million, to be completed by 2021.
American Airlines has, so far, had a very good first year serving the Dallas Fort Worth – Billings connection which was launched last spring, despite wild fires and depressed agriculture and energy markets which dampened air travel this summer. The soft ticket sales this summer was not unique to American Airlines nor to Montana, said Allison Corbyn, BSED Program Manager, who was joined by John Brewer, President of the Billings Chamber of Commerce in delivering a report to the BSED boards on January 10.
Billings Chamber, Big Sky Economic Development, Billings Airport, and Billings Tourism Business Improvement District representatives met with American Airlines a few weeks ago.
While there is hope of being able to add an additional Dallas/Forth Worth – Billings flights, as well as flights for Phoenix and Chicago, Brewer said that American Airlines officials emphasized that they wanted to wait a full year before making any changes or additions. However, ticket sales have been good enough so far that the community group of 23 different organizations that raised funds to be able to subsidize any losses for the company, at the half-way point, has only been called upon to payout 20 percent of its guarantee. American Airlines has invoiced the Chamber group for about $250,000, half of which was covered by a Federal Small Community Grant, so the group has had to pay only $121,543.
A report from Kelly McCandless, Billings Chamber of Commerce Communications Director, states that “The flight has exceeded performance expectations to date, averaging load factors near or above 80% in November and December.”
Local officials have also met with other airline companies serving the Billings market, including Delta, United and Alaska.
United Airlines announced that Billings would get Chicago service again next year. Billings was not successful in getting a proposed flight to San Francisco, which was a conversation initiated by United, said Corbyn, who believed there still remains a chance of that happening in the future.
Corbyn reported that Delta has pulled some flights as part of a process to exchange aircrafts, as they upgrade to a faster and more comfortable plane. Delta, too, reported soft numbers this summer, especially on their flights to Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. They plan to add another flight in the summer.
Alaska Airlines is not making any changes as they attempt to recover from a pilot shortage. They had bumped up some of their flights to earlier time slots which are causing some passengers to miss connections, so they are considering changing those times back, said Corbyn. Alaska is also changing to new aircraft.
Remodeling of the B concourse at the airport has almost completed construction of the bathrooms. They have improved the bathrooms and added individual private bathroom, “which are very popular,” said Ketterling. They hope to be completed with the bathrooms in March.
They are also adding another concession area to the Concourse since there was only one at the east end. Air Host has held the contract for concessions, said Ketterling, which they competed for on a bid basis. The airport is likely to go out for bid again on that contract, soon.
They are also building a new holding room for Cape Air.
While they continue with the development of a design to build a new concourse and to do other airport –wide improvements, they will begin advertising for a construction contractor in February or March, said Ketterling.
They want to add more space for aircraft and gates, as well as refurbish the exterior. The airport has only five gates now, and they want to add another eight to ten. How much can be accomplished, “will all come down to funding,” said Ketterling.
The airport is limited on space. In dealing with parking issues they may have to look at building a parking garage, which is something the Bozeman airport is also considering, said Ketterling.
Other challenges they face have to do with infrastructure and HVAC issues.
They will be looking for public input, said Ketterling. The airport is a City of Billings enterprise, however, none of the funding for the update is coming from tax dollars. It comes from a combination of federal taxes collected through a fee on tickets and a bond.
Time line for developing the design is through 2018-19, with construction to start in 2019. It is expected to take two years to complete construction.
Other airports in the state are also being remodeled, such as Missoula and Helena. Butte just finished an improvement project.