The Havre City-County Aiport Board Friday approved a new destination for passenger flights departing the airport.
“Everybody has a different opinion, and the board did what we thought was best at the time, and we will monitor it,” Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette, who sits on the airport board, said this morning.
Great Lakes Airlines, the company that provides the federally subsidized Essential Air Service pasenger air service in Montana, had requested permission to eliminate Billings from its flights that depart Havre each day.
The option that was selected by the board was to include one flight to Billings a week. A plane will fly from Billings to Havre and return to Billings each Sunday. Great Lakes told the board that was the only flight it could include to Billings if it switched to Denver as the primary destination.
Kassi Mohlencamp, spokeswoman for Great Lakes, said the change will be implemented Nov. 1. It will include one early morning flight each day and a later flight running Sunday through Friday to Denver. Two flights from Denver will return to Havre Sunday through Friday with one evening Denver-to-Havre flight on Saturday.
Bessette said it was a difficult decision, and not a unanimous vote, with one board member dissenting.
She said Friday's meeting was set during a public meeting held last Wednesday to gather public comment on the issue. Although Friday’s meeting was not formally advertised, nor was an agenda published, Bessette said she believes that their efforts of notification cover the requirements of Montana’s open meeting laws.
People spoke on both sides of the issue Wednesday, with some saying the connection is important to allow people to make medical or business visits to Billings as well as to visit friends and relatives there.
Others said the direct flight to Denver, which will take 40 minutes less than the current flight and be on a larger plane with a bathroom and flight attendant, will make it better for Havre residents, businesses and institutions like Montana State University-Northern and Northern Montana Healthcare. The Denver connection will make it less expensive to fly people out to meetings, conventions and training, and also cheaper and more convenient to bring people in for recruitment and other purposes.
The Denver flight also will put Havre on the map as far as airline connections, also helping with economic development as well as travel, the supporters said.
Bessette said that after Wednesday’s meeting the board received numerous calls and e-mails on the subject. Most of the messages she received were in favor of the switch, she said.
One item that helped make her decision was information e-mailed by North Central Montana Transit system Director Jim Lyons, who also manages the airport. Lyons said in the e-mail that the transit system, which provides free transportation to Great Falls each Tuesday and Thursday, could be used to connect with Rim Rock Stages bus from Great Falls to Billings.
The transit system also is looking into making a connection with an on-demand bus from the transit system in Phillips County that transports people from Malta to Billings.
In an e-mail to airport board members, Lyons said the bus departs Havre for Great Falls at 8:05 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday after making stops in Fort Belknap, Harlem, Chinook and locations in Havre. It arrives at the Great Falls bus station at 10:10 a.m. and leaves Great Falls to return to Havre at 2:50 p.m., arriving at 4:40 p.m. before making stops through Havre and back to Chinook, Harlem and Fort Benton.
The Rim Rock bus runs seven days a week, departing Great Falls at 2:45 p.m. and arriving in Billings at 11:15 p.m. The bus from Billings to Great Falls departs at 1:30 p.m. and stops in Great Falls at 9:30 p.m. A round trip ticket costs $112. Lyons said in the e-mail.
Bessette said the airport board has requested weekly reports on the passenger numbers to track the difference the change makes, if any, with the EAS contract coming up in February, that should give time to see if it makes a difference, she said.
Havre Mayor Tim Solomon, also a member of the board, said the board discussed the issue and realizes the problems created by reducing the Billings connection to Sunday only. He said he believes if the public receives enough education on what is available the service is likely to see an increase in passengers.
“I think we need to look forward, is what we’re looking at,” he said. “It’s nice to have it for our future.”