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A pair of small airports in Montana are at risk of losing funding thanks to a reduction in flights due to the pandemic.

Two Montana airports, the Yellowstone Airport in West Yellowstone and the Sidney-Richland Airport in Sidney, could each lose $1 million and other funding opportunities through the Airport Improvement Program because they saw drastically fewer passengers than normal in 2020.

That funding relies on an airport’s status, which is determined by the Federal Aviation Administration and is based on the number of enplanements — how many passengers get on a plane — each year. The two airports could see their statuses changed from primary to non-primary.

Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines plans to propose a bill that would help stall the effects that the pandemic had on airports’ ability to access Airport Improvement Program grants.

Usually the number of enplanements from the previous year is used to determine the next fiscal year’s funding. Daines’ soon-to-be introduced bill would require that numbers from 2019 or 2018 would be used to more accurately reflect enplanements in a regular year.

“[That] is an honest, realistic snapshot of how the airport normally operates,” said Yellowstone Airport Manager Jeff Kadlec.

Air travel by U.S. passengers dipped about 60% in 2020 compared to 2019, or about 550 million fewer travelers. West Yellowstone Airport enplanements dropped by about 50% between 2019 and 2020.

West Yellowstone is a seasonal airport and has a lower threshold of enplanements for receiving Airport Improvement Grant funding, Kadlec said. The airport has to reach 8,000 enplanements a year to reach primary airport status. Last year it had just over 4,000.

The airport has plans for a multimillion dollar terminal improvement project, with Airport Improvement Program money helping to fuel it. If last year’s numbers are used to determine this year’s status, Airport Improvement Program discretionary money would be capped at $200,000, Kadlec said.

“It’s like we slipped through a crack on this because it’s a small, little caveat,” Kadlec said.

Airport Improvement Program dollars can be used for a variety of purposes, including weather observation stations, airfield lighting, airport layout plans and taxiway construction or rehabilitation.

Walt McNutt, chairman of the board for the Sidney-Regional Airport, said that the federal money has been going to taxiway improvement projects. The airport’s next big project will rely on money from the FAA to help repair grooves on the airport’s runway.

“West Yellowstone and us kind of got put into a bad situation,” McNutt said.

The Sidney-Richland Airport operates year-round, which means it has a higher primary status threshold of 10,000 enplanements a year, McNutt said. The airport usually averages just over the threshold, but last year it lost around 4,000 enplanements.

A spokesperson for the FAA said the administration has no comment on the proposed legislation.

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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