MISSOULA — For the first time in nearly a decade, Missoula International Airport saw its year-end passenger count drop below the prior year – a factor tied to the pandemic and the apprehension of some to fly.
But as a vaccine becomes more available and confidence returns, low airfares and new routes from Missoula are expected to bring the numbers back to pre-pandemic levels.
“Once March comes, we’ll start to see an upward trend,” said deputy airport director Brian Ellestad. “The airlines haven’t finalized their spring and summer schedule, but it’s becoming more and more clear that we’ll have more seats in the market than we had in 2019.”
The airport closed 2020 with just 208,473 departing passengers and around 209,000 arriving passengers. That’s down 54% for the year but remains better than the national average.
In comparison, the airport handled more than 907,000 passengers in 2019, marking an increase of 7% over 2018. Since 2000, passenger counts in Missoula had increased 97% up until the pandemic.
“Our average was really dragged down by March, April, and May, where we did really poorly,” Ellestad said. “But we’re around 50% of normal while TSA is in that 35% to 42% nationally. We’re doing better than the national average.”
A number of new routes will begin this year from Missoula, including nonstop service on Allegiant Airlines to Orange County, California, and nonstop service on Alaska Airlines to San Jose, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles.
Low fares could also entice some to return to the friendly sky.
“When Frontier comes back in April, if you were to book a one-way ticket today to Denver, it would be $55,” said Ellestad. “Even the established routes, like Minneapolis, you can get there on certain days of the week for $110 one way. You can’t drive there for some of these airfares. It's going to drive a lot of traffic once things get better with the vaccine.”