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Missoula airport sees big future with new terminal, expanding markets

Missoula International Airport Tarmac Summer
Missoula International Airport New Terminal
Posted at 10:30 AM, Mar 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 12:30:03-05

MISSOULA — The number of airline passengers entering security checkpoints at airports across the country rose above 1 million in February for the first time since the pandemic set in last year, and the trends hold true at Missoula International Airport.

While the airport eyes a slow return to normal, undergoes a change in leadership and prepares for the busy summer travel season, it’s also looking ahead at potential new service and when, exactly, it will launch the second phase of its roughly $100 million terminal project.

Tim Damrow, the airport’s projects manager, said those figures will begin to firm up next month as the first phase of the terminal project nears completion.

“All of us have been talking about what that next piece looks like,” he said “We’re hoping that with this final design, we’re addressing some of the challenges of getting closer to a number where we need to be comfortable going into that next phase.”

The number of new flights out of Missoula this year has expanded significantly, starting with Alaska Airline’s announcement last July of service to San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco.

Allegiant Airlines followed by offering nonstop service to both Los Angeles and Portland. The number of seats into various markets from Missoula continues to expand, and both the airport and the airlines are working to ensure they’re occupied.

“With all these carriers, we’re going to have 280 seats per day in the LA market,” said Brian Ellestad, acting airport director. “We’re really going to have to stimulate travel, and the airlines are going to be lowering airfare to stimulate that travel. They’re also banking on everyone wanting to fly to Montana.”

On the last day of February, the number of passengers passing through airports nationwide on a daily basis hit nearly 1.2 million, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

The numbers mark a significant jump from the same point last year when just 100,000 people were screened daily. The Missoula airport saw just 100 passengers a day last spring. It’s now operating at around 60% of normal.

“It’s amazing how everything is trending with the national average,” said Cris Jensen, the airport’s outgoing director. “Montana, in general, has been performing better than much of the country and the airlines seem to be responding to that fact with the new service announcements.”

Missoula International Airport New Terminal
Smoke hangs over Johnson-Bell Field and Missoula International Airport as construction on the first phase of the new passenger terminal advances.

Ellestad said airlines are also looking for new opportunities as they come out of the pandemic, and many of those are connected to National Parks and the outdoors – something abundant in Montana. But they’re also looking for yields, and the top 12 markets out of Missoula are performing well.

“We’ve pretty much got our top 12 markets covered with nonstop service,” said Ellestad. “Airlines are looking for cities with a higher yield.”

Of the most traveled markets from Missoula not currently served with direct service, Boston tops the list, followed by Oakland, Phoenix, Sacramento, Atlanta and Orlando. Also scoring are Anchorage, Washington, D.C, New York LaGuardia, Houston and New Jersey, among others.

While flights to some of those destinations may be well into the future, others may be closer. Missoula airport officials expect to announce new destinations in the coming year or two.

“I would guess Phoenix is in our picture down the road,” said Ellestad. “If you look at some Allegiant markets like Austin or Nashville, you start to get to where those numbers make sense. Hopefully, in the next couple years, some of those markets, or even Phoenix, might be our next markets.”

The first $70 million phase of the terminal project is slated for completion by the end of this year. With the number of new flights and the growing passenger count, airport officials are eager to get the facility open.

Until then, they have one more summer to operate from the old terminal.

“Part of our challenge is that we’re physically constrained,” said Jensen. “We have the conversation all the time on whether we can accommodate more service. We want to of course, but we’d really love for the terminal to be operational and suddenly have a flurry of announcements.

Jensen is leaving in April after nearly 15 years at the post, but he sees a bright future for air travel in Missoula.

“We’ll get through this summer, and the next summer we’ll see what the opportunities will be,” he said. “You’re going to have some new announcements in the pipeline in the near future.”