The Havre City-County Airport Board heard mixed comments — often passionately presented — Wednesday night on both sides of a question about where passenger flights leaving Havre should land.
Great Lakes Airlines, the company providing federally subsidized Essential Air Service in Montana, has proposed eliminating its Lewistown and Billings stops in its Havre flights that end in Denver. If approved, the Havre flights only would stop in Riverton, Wyo., for 15 minutes en route to Denver, with the time of the trip shortened from 3 hours and 40 minutes to 3 hours.
The change also would create much better connections. The Billings airport averages about 35 departing flights a day with about six destinations. The Denver airport has about 135 destinations, including direct connections to international destinations, and has more than 900 departures a day. It also would use a larger aircraft, upgrading, from a 19-passenger plane to a 30-passenger plane with with a bathroom and flight attendant.
But many at the meeting, including members of the board, said they don’t think losing the Billings connection is a good idea.
Great Lakes Chief Executive Officer Chuck Howell said this morning that the airline will follow the decision of the airport board, which Havre Mayor and airport board member Tim Solomon said the board will have to make before Tuesday, when Great Lakes updates its schedule changes.
Havre Mayor Tim Solomon, a member of the airport board, told a capacity crowd during Wednesday’s board meeting that the proposal seems to have created some confusion.
“There have been a lot of mixed emotions,” Solomon said, “I think there is some misinformation going around.”
More than 30 people attended the meeting at the airport terminal.
Howell said this morning that the reason Great Lakes proposed the change is simple — it is more efficient and effective for the airline and its passengers to eliminate the Lewistown and Billings connections.
“If you tried it, you’d say, 'I know why you’d want to go straight to Denver,'” he said.
He said historically, in the opinion of the airline industry and its passengers, it is better to have fewer stops en route to a destination.
The main reason Great Lakes is interested in the change is a matter of scheduling a limited number of aircraft in the complex world of airline connections. The more stops a flight makes, the more it takes airplane hours out of the mix, he said.
“The goal always is … to get you to the airport in time to make your connection,” Howell said, adding, “The whole objective is for you not to spend a lot of time in airport waiting for a connection.”
Several people commented Wednesday that flying to Denver often requires long layovers, even overnight, in Billings to connect to another airline’s flight to Denver.
One of the advantages pushed by supporters of the change is that it will open up the Havre airport for more traffic, even bringing people from Canada and possibly Great Falls to fly directly to Denver.
Howell said this morning that the switch would tie Havre into the mix for searching for flight reservations, creating listings on Internet searches for flights that do not appear now.
But several people said the connection to Billings still is needed, eliminating the need for driving to Billings such as to see family or friends or medical specialists.
Jody Nugent said the proposal already has affected her family. Family members in China had made reservations to fly back to Havre, flying on Great Lakes from Denver to Billings, where another family member would join them to fly back to Havre.
They have been notified the Billings stop has been eliminated, she said, invalidating those tickets.
Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Line Executive Director Krista Solomon, wife of Tim Solomon, said there is no need for the change, as people can board a Great Lakes airplane and fly to Billings without ever getting off the plane.
But others said the change is needed. Frank Trocki, chancellor of Montana State University-Northern, could not attend the airport board meeting. He had flown out of Havre on Great Lakes to make a connection to meetings in China.
Havre Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Debbie Vandeberg read a statement from Trocki about the proposed change. In the statement, Trocki said Northern spends $70,000 a year flying people to meetings, conventions and other events, often also having to pay to send them to Great Falls to fly out of there.
“If you make the switch, the university will consider Havre its primary airport,” he said.
Vandeberg said the Havre business community is in support of the switch as well.
“Shame on us if we don’t take advantage of this offer to us,” she said.
Rick Stephens, manager of Hill County Electric and Triangle Communications, said that if the change took the price down, his companies would be interested in the Denver service. If it doesn’t affect the price, he sees no advantage, he said.
According to the Great Lakes website, a ticket for a flight from Havre to Billings for an Oct. 28 flight would cost $99, while a ticket for a flight from Havre to Denver would cost $194 or $214, depending on the flight.
A ticket for a flight from Havre to Denver Nov. 2, which shows the proposed change, would cost $144 or $119, depending on the flight.
Karla Wohlwend of Havre Public Schools read a statement from Superintendent Andy Carlson, who she said could not attend in person. Carlson said in his statement that the school district brings people in to provide professional development, and the switch would be an advantage.
“Using Denver would be much more cost-effective for us,” he said.
Dave Henry, president and CEO of Northern Montana Healthcare, repeatedly urged the board to make the switch to eliminate the Billings stop, including warning that if Great Lakes doesn’t get the change it may decide to eliminate its service to Havre.
Solomon told Henry that Howell has said the company will continue its Havre service regardless of the decision on eliminating the Billings stop.