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Missoula airport officials nervous about fall as airlines eye service, employee cuts

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Posted at 8:22 AM, Aug 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-26 11:58:49-04

MISSOULA — While Missoula International Airport is trending above the national average for passenger loads and has lost fewer seats than other markets, officials are watching the fall and how airlines respond when CARES Act funding expires in October.

American Airlines this week announced plans to reduce service in 15 small market cities and cut 19,000 employees when the federal aid that protected those jobs expires on Sept. 30.

Delta Airlines also has announced plans to furlough 1,940 pilots around that time, while United has warned more than 35,000 employees that their jobs are at risk. All three carriers serve Missoula.

Southwest, which does not fly into Missoula, plans to cut 40 flights from its October schedule.

“What we’re mostly worried about is October into the fall,” said deputy airport director Brian Ellestad. “If you went out to buy an airline ticket right now, everybody has their fall schedule out there for sale. I would guess that in the next two weeks, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what our October is going to look like.”

Airlines were eligible under the CARES Act to receive more than $50 billion in loans and grants. A portion of that was designed to help airlines retain pilots and other workers as demand for service plummeted early in the pandemic.

But airlines this week lined up to say they’ve only partially recovered from the crisis and face a dire financial situation in the months ahead. American has said that its capacity in the fourth quarter will be only half of that a year ago.

While the future remains uncertain, many Montana airports, including Missoula, have weathered the service and seat reductions better than other regions. Missoula continues to board around 1,000 passengers a day, or nearly half of what would be considered normal.

The national average remains around 30%.

Airport Stats
Montana was ranked as the least impacted state for volume declines in the U.S.

“We’re running about 50% of where we’d expect to be running this time of year,” said airport director Cris Jensen. “In general, it’s probably better than some places. What we see when we compare ourselves to the rest of the country is that Montana is faring better.”

Several industry groups have scored all 50 states based upon their capacity cuts, and Montana has fared the best. The figures largely correspond to how hard the various states have been pinched by the pandemic.

“Montana is the least impacted state in the nation in terms of loss of air service,” said Jensen. “It’s showing us down 25% in available seats. But we’re worried that when the CARES Act money runs out in September, the airlines may make drastic changes in schedule and capacity.”

Until the fall becomes clear, along with the airline industry’s response, airport officials in Missoula are looking to next March when Alaska Airlines launches three new daily nonstop routes from Missoula.

The new service includes San Jose, San Diego and San Francisco.

“We need a healthy industry to keep our trends going,” said Jensen. “While we’re least impacted, we’re a little nervous where September and October are going to go. It’s a good picture for us so far, but we have to see what fall brings.”