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 "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 "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.

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