Billings must make its case for air service

Gazette opinion:

8 hours ago
It’s disappointing that Frontier Airlines has decided to leave Billings in January. That decision will eliminate two daily roundtrip flights to Denver with 99 seats on each plane.
Frontier’s decision also caught many Billings folks by surprise because the airline posted 18 percent growth in Billings boardings this year, and all Billings air carriers saw their business grow. However, as previously reported in The Gazette, Frontier has a dozen fewer jets to serve small markets after it split from Republic. It announced elimination of flights in Billings, Boise and Rapid City. It kept service in Bozeman and is adding flights in North Dakota.

The U.S. airline industry is increasingly consolidated and airlines continually fly in and out of bankruptcy court. Steep increases in fuel prices have put the industry in a money-losing position with small jets. Such factors that may determine whether an airline stays, expands or leaves a market are beyond the control of our community. However, local business leaders need to pay attention to air service because it is vital to commerce and quality of life. Knowing what opportunities and challenges may exist for air service will put Billings in the best possible position to maintain or enhance service.
That is the goal of the Billings Chamber of Commerce Air Service Task Force, which includes representation from the airport, Big Sky Economic Development and Mayor Tom Hanel.

Tom Binford, director of aviation at Billings Logan International Airport, will be talking to the task force this month about doing an air service risk assessment, which was last done in 2008 as the national economy was crashing. The study would by next spring:
– Analyze the top 50 destinations for Billings passengers.
– Compare Billings’ costs and fares with other airports.
– Compile information on how airlines are doing and what their future business plans may be.
– Gather information on what marketing other regional airports are doing.
– Provide hard data on how effective subsidies have been in maintaining air service and for how long.

Sometimes incentives help, sometime they don’t, Binford said, adding that he’s also heard of a local subsidy prompting an unsubsidized carrier to leave the market.
“Market” is the key word. Airlines are looking for passengers who will pay the airfare.
“Air service really chases economic development, and it’s got to be really good economic development that helps the air industry,” Binford said.
Even with the loss of Frontier, Billings will be served by United and Delta, the world’s two largest air carriers.

“Billings, for the size of our city, has really great air service,” said Jeremy VanAtta of Big Sky Economic Development.
Big Sky Executive Director Steve Arveschoug and Billings Chamber President John Brewer agree that any airline incentives would have to make good business sense.
Arveschoug prefers exploring the idea of adding infrastructure to attract and retain air carriers — investments that could still pay off if a particular carrier left.
One infrastructure investment under discussion is re-establishing international service. Meeting federal security requirements would require construction of a building for customs, and the Billings airport would be responsible for funding the federal agents screening international passengers and cargo. The cost would be hundreds of thousands of dollars to start up.

Still, there are reasons to consider opening up for Billings-Canada travel.
“We’re just in a prime spot as the area’s energy hub,” Brewer said.
Local leaders are on the right path when they cooperate – as they are doing