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  Comments (1) Total Wednesday Apr. 23, 2014
New Valley-Wide Group Raising Funds for Additional Air Service
Glacier Park International Airport set another passenger record in 2013
Glacier Park International Airport's ground crew prepares for a plane to taxi before takeoff. - Beacon file photo
While Glacier Park International Airport continues to draw record passengers, a new organization devoted to increasing commercial air service in the Flathead Valley is launching its initial fundraising campaign this month.

There were 397,827 total passengers at GPIA in 2013, a 3.7 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Montana Department of Transportation. The local airport was the fourth busiest in the state, behind Bozeman (884,660), Billings (774,741) and Missoula (594,057). Among the four largest airports, only Kalispell and Bozeman saw overall increases in passengers in 2013. Bozeman was up 2 percent while Billings was down 12 percent and Missoula dipped 1.8 percent.

At GPIA, the number of departing passengers was up nearly every month. There were 200,520, or nearly 7,000 more than the previous year. There were 197,403 arriving passengers at GPIA, or 7,500 more than 2012. The summer months of July and August — the peak of tourism season — were the largest in terms of total passengers with more than 30,000 both months.

“It is very encouraging to see economic recovery begin to manifest itself in travel,” said Cindi Martin, the airport director.

“We believe we are seeing both tourism and business travel improvements as evidenced by the fact that nearly every month in 2013 showed higher numbers of travelers flying in and out of our market than in the previous years.”

Hoping to build on that momentum, a valley-wide group named AERO — short for Airline Enhancement Regional Organization — is formally taking flight with a goal of adding additional non-stop flights through GPIA as a way to benefit local businesses and tourism. The group is hosting an invite-only event Jan. 30 to introduce the initiative to business and community leaders, and after that the organization will begin trying to raise roughly $250,000 by May.

AERO hopes to play an integral role in expanding air service by raising funds that could be used as collateral and leverage during negotiations with national airline carriers. In today’s industry, airlines are wary of risking flights to small markets that are not guaranteed to be profitable. A group like AERO could establish a backup fund for carriers if ridership numbers fall short during the year. This could also influence carriers to reduce airfare, which could increase ridership. By law, airports cannot provide backup funds that offset carriers’ losses, which underscores the value of a group like AERO.

“The goal is to get a carrier to try something and if it stands on its own two feet, then they don’t require our (funding) anymore,” said Paul Johannsen, president of the AERO board, which includes members from across the valley.

“In the industry right now, it’s so competitive and the margins are so thin because of the costs, so in order for them to try something new they need some sort of backing that insures they won’t get killed doing that.”

Johannsen and others have researched other similar organizations that helped spur additional flights and also hired a firm to analyze the viability of various options.

GPIA currently serves five year-round routes: Seattle, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul. There are also four seasonal routes: Oakland, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago.

The Delta Connection, which offers non-stop flights to Salt Lake City and Minneapolis and occasionally Atlanta, was the most popular service in Kalispell last year, with 57,829 total boardings, according to the MDT. Horizon Air/Alaska Air, which flies to Seattle, was the second most popular service with 53,517.

By raising $250,000, AERO could lure a potential winter flight to Chicago, which has been identified as a popular possibility. The state tourism office has increasingly poured marketing funds into the Chicago area and found success in drawing visitors.

An eight-week service offering two flights per week would require roughly $225,000 from AERO, according to Johannsen.

“We’d like to get the funds committed and in the bank to potentially talk about that,” he said.

“We’re not locked into any carrier or any market yet, but in order to get one of these you basically need the money in the bank. Our goal is to have a fund we build up and get businesses and community partners to participate so that we could hopefully get to the point of getting three or four more direct fights in the valley.”
On 01-21-14, Pepere commented....
Don’t we now have seasonal daily flights to Chicago via United?
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