MISSOULA — The air travel industry has been through a lot of changes in the half-dozen years since planning started for the new passenger terminal at Missoula Montana Airport.
So how will the new building match up against the growing demand for Montana travel?
It was almost exactly two years ago the Missoula Airport terminal was full of echoes, instead of passengers, as the first round of COVID-19 lockdowns decimated air travel. But since that initial plummet in plane traffic, passenger counts are on the rise, especially spurred by the increased interest in Montana for recreation, or residence.
"We're doing much better than the national average, so I guess that's the biggest target," noted airport director Brian Ellestad. "So I think we'll be up, hopefully very close or exceeding 2019 record numbers here this calendar year."
More than 700,000 passengers came through the Missoula airport in 2021, nearly matching the pre-pandemic levels. But is the new terminal — which was planned around projections that seem ages ago — ready for the future?
"We built what we needed. We didn't overbuild. Our planning was, you know, we can add a block here a block there," Ellestad explained. "We can just kind of add as needed so it will be good for a while."
It's hard to compare how the old, and new, terminals will handle traffic since the operations will be radically different. Vastly improved baggage handling and ticketing will bring a night and day difference, as well as efficiency that will be critical as passenger volumes climb.
Ellestad says that will also help in the next few years, as the airport completes the next two phases to revamp the old terminal.
"I mean, we'll have a couple pinch points in this one. We have a temporary baggage claim that will be in here. It will be a pinch point. Bathrooms will be a little bit of a pinch point, which is unfortunate. But we had to get everything in this building so we could build that next phase." - Missoula Montana Airport director Brian Ellestad
The next project, which went out to bid last week, is much more simple to accomplish, according to Ellestad. "In this phase, you know we had FAA, TSA, airlines. There's so many different entities just to try and pull everything together. But the next phase will be much easier."
The airport hopes to have that second phase complete in 2025.