Montana Residents: Save the Butte Airport

Each summer, fly fishing guides like Andrew Hanson help hundreds of travelers explore the rivers of southwestern Montana. Last summer, Hanson was responsible for 207 people who arrived at the airport in Butte, Mont., to begin their adventures. Many arrived on Delta's SkyWest flight from Salt LakeCity, Utah; others arrived on Horizon Airlines flight from Seattle.

But later this month, those options will dwindle. And as ticket prices in and out of Butte rise, more and more people will start their journeys from airports farther away.

"If people are going to fly into the Bozeman airport, they're more likely to fish with lodges close to the Bozeman airport," Hanson, partner and manager of the Complete Fly Fisher, told ABCNews.com. "We are losing our grip by the second."

To help prevent Butte's businesses from going under, the town is asking its residents to rally. On Tuesday, Butte's chamber of commerce holds a community meeting where as many as 150 people could join forces to save Butte's Bert Mooney Airport.

Starting Aug. 24, when Horizon Air stops flying in and out of the airport, Butte is expected to lose one of two of its commercial air carriers. Horizon currently flies Butte residents to and from Seattle via Bozeman. In doing so, the carrier connects the town of nearly 34,000 to larger hubs, and in many ways, much of the rest of the world.

The decision to discontinue service to Butte is one example among many that illustrates how airlines are scaling back service to survive high fuel bills and dwindling profitability. But while many large cities are losing some service come fall, it is the country's smaller towns that will take a far harder hit. It is places like Butte that fear they could soon be cut off from easy access to the rest of the nation.

"It was a total shock to all of us," Jim Smitham, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corporation, told ABCNews.com. "This Horizon situation has really been an eye opener to us that we, as a community, really need to be more proactive in going out and aggressively communicating with airlines that serve us now and also look at other potential air carriers that can service our area."

Like many airlines that are trimming service, Horizon Airlines announced the elimination of its Butte service in late May as one of two routes to be discontinued. The carrier also said it would reduce service on several other routes. In late July, Horizon's parent company, Alaska Air Group, reported a second-quarter net loss of $14.1 million, according to the company's earnings report.

"It's with great regret that we leave Butte, where we've been part of the community since 1989," said Jeff Pinneo, Horizon's president and CEO in a May statement. "This was not an easy decision, and it was arrived at only after a great deal of thought and a thorough analysis of possible alternatives."

Horizon said that come fall, travelers can instead board the carrier's planes to Seattle in Helena, about 70 miles from Butte, or Bozeman, about 80 miles from Butte.

In Butte, airport manager Rick Griffith said that Butte's skimpier service is a part of a lengthier trend. In 2000, Butte's airport accommodated 50,000 people a year and ran seven flights a day. Starting late August, those daily seven flights will be reduced to two.

"I see this just as something that's been fizzling slowly over the last 10 or 15 years, and now it's rapidly on its way out the door," Hanson said.

"We're on the verge of devastation."

Butte's Business Leaders Need Airport

Business leaders in Butte worry the cutbacks will have a devastating long-term impact on the local economy.

"Montana's pretty remote to get to to begin with, so it makes it a little more difficult, especially for our West Coast guests specifically, to get to Butte," Montana state senator and fly fishing guide Steve Gallus told ABCNews.com.

Gallus plans to attend Tuesday's meeting and expects a large turnout, including representatives of the outdoor and hotel industries, rental car companies and restaurant owners.

"I think it's going to be well attended by everyone," Gallus said.

Tuesday's meeting brings together Butte's business leaders who will work to get commitments to use the airport so the town won't also lose service from its soon-to-be-one remaining carrier, Delta's SkyWest. Leaders also plan to bring up other ways the community can support the airport, which include possible financial support to carriers to ensure service in and out of Butte continues, Smitham said.

"Other communities have put together things like travel banks and other types of financial incentives and subsidies that help offset the cost of serving in an area where service is kind of marginal," Smitham said. For instance, he explained that a business could contribute $10,000 to a travel fund that it would use on plane tickets for a set period of time, effectively guaranteeing an airline that it would have money coming in.

Though SkyWest still flies between Butte and Salt Lake City, the lack of service to a second major hub has some community members worried. Griffith also told ABCNews.com Monday that he fears that without competition, SkyWest's prices will rise.

Horizon now carries 19 percent of total traffic boarding planes in Butte, Griffith said. He said that the airport has 250 seats per day coming into Butte, and today Horizon accounts for 150 of those seats when shared between Butte and Bozeman travelers.

In a July 21 letter, Butte's chamber of commerce asked businesses in southwest Montana to join forces to save the airport.

"We should all be gravely concerned about our air service and be willing to help rectify this situation," the letter said. "Sixty percent of all airline passengers are business travelers, and this segment has the most to lose if we no longer have convenient air service in southwest Montana.

"We are calling on you as a major business in southwest Montana to pledge your organization's support for using Bert Mooney Airport for all of your business travel needs," the letter said.

Smitham, for one, is confident Tuesday's meeting will make a difference.

"Butte's got a history of not taking these things lightly," he said. "They kind of wake the dragon in us."

ABC News' Matt Hosford contributed to this report.