BILLINGS — The Billings airport is suffering at the bottom of a trickle-down effect. A national pilot shortage means fewer flights - not for major cities, but for small destinations like the Magic City - and fewer flights means fuller flights, which means skyrocketing prices.
"One of the managers told me today he had one seat left, and one guy paid $1,600 one way to take that seat," said Billings airport Director Kevin Ploehn.
Seats are in high demand on planes going in and out of Billings. Ploehn says the major carriers have cut Billings service sometimes by more than half, and it could be worse.
"I was complaining a little to one of them the other day, and they said some places are only getting one flight, so take the two," Ploehn said.
Justin Garrison travels to Montana from Denver a lot for work. His company looks at both Billings and Bozeman, but it’s hard for the former to compete.
"There are a lot more flight times going in and out of Bozeman," he said Tuesday in Billings. "A lot of (travel) is based on availability, what works best schedule-wise."
Ploehn's saving grace is that carriers are starting to send bigger planes, so the total number of passengers won’t necessarily go down if seats stay in demand. But the lack of a low-cost airline option is a noticeable gap. Allegiant Airlines have cut service to just two destinations - Las Vegas and Phoenix - and Frontier Airlines are gone altogether.
"If we had a low-cost carrier here to compete, I think that would help a lot, but we don’t right now," Ploehn lamented.
His next hope for drumming up excitement? Billings finally opening its new terminal.
"We were hoping to open before Memorial Day," Ploehn said. "It's still a question mark - it might happen. If not, early June."
Just how busy it will be is the next question.