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As regional airlines struggle with pilot shortages, Butte airport officials look to the future

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Bert Mooney Airport Sign

A sign for the Bert Mooney Airport is accompanied by a vintage plane at the airport's entrance on south Harrison Avenue in Butte.

Bert Mooney just cut the red ribbon on its new $10.5-million terminal, but in a time when the airport has seen a decline in boarding and regional airlines are feeling the pinch from a nationwide pilot shortage, will there be any planes at the gates of the new terminal? Meanwhile, airport officials are seeking to bring a Denver flight to Bert Mooney, but the airport will need to get its boarding numbers up first if it's to achieve this aspiration and more.

It's Wednesday morning at the Bert Mooney Airport in Butte.

Amid below-zero temperatures and under a blue, cloudless sky stands the airport's new $10.5-million terminal.

Inside the terminal, where the walls are lined with timber woodwork and a sprawling stained glass window spans a northern wall, airport manager Pam Chamberlin stands behind the check-in counter readying the terminal for its first passengers, which are anticipated to pass through the airport in little more than 24 hours.

Chamberlin says the new terminal — funded by a combination of $1 million from the county's Hard Rock Mine Trust, federal funding, and a loan guaranteed by the USDA — is a project nearly 10 years in the making.

And now the day is finally here. The passengers are coming.

"The outcome couldn't be any better," said Chamberlin, referring to the completion of the terminal construction.

But the ultimate outcome of Butte's new terminal hasn't been determined yet.

Just ask North Bend, Washington, where airport officials built a new $20-million airport terminal in 2008 only to have regional carrier Horizon Air discontinue service just days before an opening celebration was to take place, according to the Seattle Times.

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New Bert Mooney Airport terminal

The exterior of the new Bert Mooney Airport terminal awaits its first passengers Wednesday morning. Airport officials are seeking to increase Bert Mooney's boarding numbers with a new ad campaign. They hope increased boarding will help them negotiate for a flight to Denver operated by SkyWest.

JR Hansen, chairman of Bert Mooney's Air Service Development Committee and also a member of the Airport Authority Board, says what happened in North Bend could happen in Butte.

The reason: pilot shortages.

"The concern is that SkyWest will lose a good portion of their pilots," said Hansen, describing a nationwide trend.

Regional airlines like SkyWest have been increasingly besieged by pilot shortages in recent years, which has caused some regional carriers to re-evaluate where they provide service — particularly in unprofitable locations like Butte, where airlines receive federal subsidies to provide their services.

In March of last year, SkyWest's chief executive officer Russell "Chip" Childs told the U.S. House of Representatives' Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that anticipated pilot shortages in 2026 could cause regional carriers to ground as much as two-thirds of the U.S. regional fleet.

Childs said that the shortage can partly be attributed to an increasing need for pilots among major airline carriers, which do much of their recruiting from the military but also from regional carriers — airlines like SkyWest.

"We are honored that the major airlines recruit heavily from the regional industry — but this honor comes with consequences." Childs told committee members.

World without commercial air service

Hansen said a pullout by SkyWest would be severely detrimental for Bert Mooney because commercial air service provides much of the airport's funding through grants from the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport Improvement Program.

The airport is also funded by a passenger facility charge (a kind of tax charged to each passenger who passes through the airport), two county tax mills, and other miscellaneous revenue sources, such as rent paid by rental car companies.

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Interior

Airport employees stand in the cavernous new terminal at the Bert Mooney Airport, 101 Airport Road, Wednesday morning. Airport officials recently celebrated the opening of the new terminal, but a nationwide pilot shortage may be putting the airport's commercial service at risk.

Each year the airport receives about $1 million from the FAA's AIP program. But if SkyWest were to stop servicing Bert Mooney, that funding would reduce to just $165,000 — a scenario that Hansen describes as "catastrophic."

According to a contingency budget analysis, the absence of commercial service to Bert Mooney would result in the loss of 322 jobs currently supported by the airport, the layoff of at least three full-time airport employees, and a shortfall of $300,000 annually.

"If the airport closed, it would be as detrimental as the mine," Hansen said.

Local impact

Butte Local Development Corp. executive director Joe Willauer agrees, saying the airport is "critically important" for Butte's economic development.

A 2016 study by the Montana Department of Transportation's Aeronautics Division estimated that the airport provides a direct economic impact of $41 million to the Butte region.

What's more, Willauer said, the presence of commercial air service is also an important recruiting tool when it comes to courting businesses that are looking to locate in Butte.  

"It's really valuable to (the BLDC) to be able to say, 'Hey, we have an airport that has two non-stop flights a day to Salt Lake, which will give you pretty much direct access to anywhere in the (country),'" said Willauer.

Hansen says he doesn't want a decline in boarding to put Butte on SkyWest's shortlist of potential service cuts, noting that between 2013 and 2016 Butte saw an overall decline in boarding of about 13 percent.

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check-in Bert Mooney

Bert Mooney Airport's check-in counter is framed by a wall decorated with timber woodwork in this photo taken Wednesday morning.

To boost its boarding numbers and avoid the aforementioned worst-case scenario, Butte's Airport Authority Board has partnered with local economic development groups and county officials to launch the Air Service Development Committee.

The airport is also seeking to boost its numbers through an ad campaign it's rolling out with the help of the Great Falls-based Wendt Agency.

Earlier this month, Butte's Tourism Business and Improvement District awarded the airport a $94,500 grant to help pay for the campaign.

According to Maria Pochervina, executive secretary for the TBID, the grant for the airport's marketing campaign is the largest allocation the body has ever handed out at one time.

Tourism talk

Hansen said about 40 percent of the campaign's funding will go to local and regional advertising while the other 60 percent will go toward national advertising targeting what Hansen calls "the outdoor adventure traveler."

Steve Luebeck, TBID chair and general manager of the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, says the investment is well worth the expense because of the potential the airport has for attracting tourists.

"A huge segment of tourist travel into Montana and into southwest Montana is airport based," Luebeck noted.

But can Butte ever realistically compete for a substantial piece of the tourism pie with airports in Bozeman, Missoula, and Helena, where there are more options and more airlines?

One hurdle that might be difficult to climb is ticket price — or the perception of ticket price.

Willauer noted that some believe it's too expensive to fly in and out of Butte, which he contends simply isn't true, especially when one adds in fuel costs and free parking at Bert Mooney.

If travelers book in advance, he added, they can get prices comparable to other Montana airports, a sentiment echoed by Chamberlin and Hansen.

Hansen explained that ticket price is based on the fullness of the plane, and because the planes in Butte only have 50 seats, flights fill up quickly and tickets get more expensive as time goes on. 

In other words, if you're planning a last-minute weekend trip to Las Vegas, you'll probably not find the same price you would have weeks ago.

As for local travelers, the Standard posted an informal open-ended survey on Facebook asking users which airports they used and why. 

Residents from Butte and elsewhere answered with a mixed bag of responses.

Some said that they felt Butte was less expensive than other Montana airports.

"If I plan ahead Butte may be cheaper, plus it's so convenient," wrote Mary Ann Pearce.

There were also some BTM loyalists who said they chose Butte no matter what — respondents like Tina Ashley who said she goes out of her way to fly from Bert Mooney.

Similarly, some respondents said they shopped around for the best ticket price while others said they would choose Butte if they could but often choose other airports because of their destination, carrier preference, or another factor.

"I look at cost between Butte, Bozeman and Helena," said Jamie Martin. "If costs are different by 50.00 or more I pick other cities to fly out of due to costs. I do compare by travel time, cost of parking and flight times. But I would prefer to fly out of Butte."

Last but not least, some respondents said they felt Butte was too expensive.

"Would love to fly into Butte but it is always cheaper (by) quite a bit to fly into Bozeman," wrote Julie Carlson.

Ticket price is something the Bert Mooney Airport Authority Board is trying to change with a potential new flight to Denver, one which would be operated by SkyWest under the banner of United Airlines.

Hansen said that the airport also has a goal of one day negotiating for larger planes with SkyWest — and in the long term, recruiting an additional airline. 

"That second flight to Denver with United Airlines, that would be a real significant boost to tourism to have that second flight," said Luebeck. "Just from a local travel perspective, you wouldn't have to travel to Bozeman or Missoula to get onto the United grid. It just opens up additional opportunities to travel to certain locations with ease."  

The Airport Authority Board is in early discussions with the regional carrier about the potential new flight, but that's not a done deal yet.

The airport will have to show SkyWest that a Denver flight would be worthwhile for the company.

To that end, the airport has a goal of increasing the fullness of its flights — currently at about 77 percent — to 84 percent, something that Hansen and other members of the board are hoping to achieve through the ad campaign.

Fly local

You might have heard of the "buy local" movement — but the sentiment expressed by Hansen and others interviewed by the Standard sounds more like a "fly local" movement.

The overall message seems to be this: as far as airports go in rural America, if you don't use it, you lose it.

In a world with an ever-diminishing pool of available pilots and where air travel has become, to say the least, more casual, The Montana Standard asked: is it possible that a career in commercial aviation just isn't as sexy as it used to be?

Hansen, 46, is a commercial pilot himself, and he says he grew up wanting to fly planes.

"I always dreamed of being a pilot when I was a little kid," he said, noting that an airshow in 1976 inspired him.

After a career in the military, becoming a commercial pilot seemed like a logical next step for the Butte native.

Hansen says he doesn't have any facts or figures on the hearts and minds of young people — whether they still want to become airline pilots or not — but an awful lot of children still stop by to visit the cockpit.

"There still is a romance to it," Hansen said.

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for The Montana Standard.

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