Officials from Gulfstream International Airlines say they’ll carefully consider a pitch to add direct flights between Billings and Williston, N.D., the epicenter of a historic oil boom that has sent thousands of people flocking to western North Dakota and Eastern Montana.
During a Friday meeting in Billings, officials also asked Gulfstream to consider adding flights that would connect Billings, Missoula and Helena.
“We’ll have to boil this down and dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s and get the costs down exactly. It’s up to us now to do our homework and make it profitable,” said Mickey Bowman, Gulfstream’s vice president for Essential Air Service.
Gulfstream, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., began serving Eastern Montana communities through the federal Essential Air Service program last May, taking over routes previously served by Great Lakes Airlines.
During a meeting, officials from Big Sky Economic Development, the Billings Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitors Bureau and airport representatives, presented survey results that indicated broad support for expanding air service in the region.
Bowman said he wasn’t surprised by the results of the survey after they were presented to airline officials. “This is what we have had in mind,” he said.
Bowman said it’s unlikely that Gulfstream would make any decisions on offering new service before next spring. Until then the company will study a variety of issues, including whether new Billings-to-Williston service would affect Williston’s own status as a community served by the EAS, a federal program that subsidizes air service in rural communities. Another consideration is whether Billings-to-Williston service might siphon off passengers from Gulfstream’s service to Sidney, Bowman said.
Gulfstream provides three daily flights between Billings and Sidney under the EAS program. Rick Leuthold, chairman and director of business development for Sanderson Stewart, a Billings-based engineering company, caught the early Sidney-to-Billings flight in order to attend Friday’s meeting. A regular on that flight, Leuthold said the planes are typically about three-quarters full, and many passengers are heading to Williston.
Sanderson Stewart established an office in Williston about 18 months ago, and Leuthold frequently commutes between both communities. Leuthold said Gulfstream’s service has proven to be reliable and reasonably priced, but he would also welcome direct flights to Williston.
Air service connecting Billings and Williston would eliminate a five-hour, 300-mile drive that can take much longer during the winter, supporters said.
Friday’s meeting regarding air service resulted after Big Sky Economic Development organized a visit to Sidney and Williston last spring. Participants witnessed a booming economy that has resulted from the development of the vast Bakken oil formation.
Dozens of Montana companies are either doing business in the Williston area or are at least looking to expand there. Billings is trying to position itself as a regional hub that plays a role in servicing the energy industry, said Shelley Pierce, member investor coordinator for Big Sky Economic Development Corp., the privately funded sister agency of Big Sky Economic Development.
After the trip to Eastern Montana and western North Dakota, local officials turned their attention to areas in which Billings could help service the growing market. Health care has been one potential area for business opportunities, and transportation was another, Pierce said.
Last September, Big Sky ED conducted a survey that asked business travelers about the need for additional air service. The online survey may not qualify as a scientific study, yet it indicated that business travelers are quite interested in expanding air service between Billings and Williston, Pierce said.
Forty-two percent of survey respondents said they would use a direct flight linking Billings and Williston if service were available, and another 20 percent said they might use such a flight.
Likewise, survey respondents showed strong support for flights connecting Billings with Helena and Missoula.
John Brewer, president of the Billings Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitors Bureau, said EAS helps provide air service to underserved communities, but there’s a lot of interest in providing a direct flight between Billings and Williston.
“In order for businesses to serve the Bakken, we need to get folks from Billings to Williston,” Brewer said.
Brewer said the hospitality industry in Billings is also interested in promoting tourism deals to Williston workers looking for a weekend getaway.
The local Tourism Business Improvement District has agreed to earmark up to $20,000 to promote the Billings area as a getaway for workers in the Williston area, Brewer said. The TBID is funded from a surcharge on Billings motel rooms.