Opinion

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Guest Column

Making Connections

Glacier AERO and the productive use of Small Community Air Service Development (SCASD) grants are one of the best kept success story secrets

The Flathead Valley has a quality of restaurants, entertainment, retail and air connections far beyond what is usually available in areas as sparsely populated as ours.

Yes, you read that right! Quality air connections. And it keeps getting better every year. I know that it is a popular pastime to “dis” our air service, but I challenge you to consider the facts and how you can help to continue improving it.

Let’s compare ourselves to Bend, Oregon, which has twice our population and is served by four airlines with flights to seven hubs, while we are served by four airlines with flights to 11 hubs. Random comparisons of ticket prices show Glacier Park International Airport coming in at $100 less/round trip pretty consistently. A decade ago GPIA was served by two airlines with connections to Seattle, Salt Lake and Minneapolis. The addition of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Oakland and Portland did not just happen. It was a result of very capable management of our airport and the efforts of some forward thinking community leaders who established Glacier Airline Enhancement and Retention Outreach (AERO) in 2014.

Glacier AERO and the productive use of Small Community Air Service Development (SCASD) grants are one of the best kept success story secrets.

Much of this increase in capacity and the decrease in ticket costs can be attributed to Minimum Revenue Guarantees (MRGs) – a tool for communities to partner with airlines in sharing the risk of adding flights in new, untested markets. Funds are only transferred to the airline when flights under-perform and do not cover costs. Once the airline has had an opportunity to test a market with minimal risk they then make the productive flights permanent without a guarantee. Many of the flights added in the last decade are the direct result of GPIA and Glacier AERO using MRGs to entice airlines to take a chance northwest Montana.

Marc Liechti, APEC Engineering, has seen his business grow in part due to the increased ease with which his clients can reach the area. “Enhancing the ability of real estate developers and buyers to travel to the Flathead Valley directly benefits our business by allowing our customers to arrive more easily and spend more time here once they arrive,” he said. “Due to the new flight to Chicago I am now able to visit my home country, Switzerland, with just one stop – simplifying international travel.”

AERO has had great success using MRGs to secure winter flights from Chicago over the past four years adding 2,200-30,00 seats each winter and paying no MRG for some years and in the least productive year paying $51,000 total or $16.94/seat. These flights were coordinated with billboard and bus advertising in Chicago that the Whitefish and Kalispell convention and visitors bureaus contracted. This symbiotic relationship raised awareness of our winter offerings and then provided a means of transportation to arrive at GPIA easily.

This summer AERO will launch a new fundraising campaign in order to provide a community match for a SCASD grant application for more MRGs to secure new connections. In the original fundraising campaign 42 local businesses invested over $220,000 in the effort. AERO hopes to raise $330,000 this year. Discussions with new airlines have already begun and target markets include Dallas/Fort Worth, Southern California and Phoenix.

Courtenay Sprunger, Big Sky Public Relations, shared, “As a public relations firm in a rural market, engaging in the latest industry training generally means flying to large metro markets. The good news is that we’re enjoying lower airfare costs than we were five years ago. That, along with our improved access to hubs like Chicago and Denver via direct flights means that more of our dollars are actually invested in training time, not travel time.”

Convenient and competitively priced air service is essential for business growth and attraction of entrepreneurs. As we endeavor to attract a skilled workforce, connections to national hubs are an important consideration. Companies with clients nationally are well-served when we increase the number of flights. Flight options have more than tripled over the last ten years boosting our economy and supporting the second fastest population growth rate in Montana. Not only do these additional flights bring millions of dollars to the local economy, they also allow us to more easily make connections around the country when we travel for business, visit loved ones or simply vacation.

Kim Morisaki is the business development director at Montana West Economic Development, economic gardener, strategic doer and  entrepreneur enthusiast.