MISSOULA — Passenger counts over the Thanksgiving week at Missoula International Airport dipped slightly from the same week last year but remained on par with the upward trend of those returning to the sky for travel.
With a new coronavirus relief package pending in Washington and a vaccine anticipated soon, airport officials are looking for additional fiscal support from Congress and hoping for a return to normal next summer – historically one of the airport’s busiest seasons.
Cris Jensen, director of the Missoula airport, said 479 passengers passed through security on Thanksgiving Day this year compared to 756 passengers last year. The day after Thanksgiving, the airport saw 618 passengers this year compared to 945 passengers last year.
Two days after Thanksgiving, the airport saw 629 passengers versus 1,396 last year.
“It’s pretty consistent with what we’ve been seeing,” Jensen said. “For whatever reason, on Nov. 29 this year, we had 1,009 passengers – our busiest day of the month by far. That Sunday after Thanksgiving when everyone is traveling back home was our busiest day of the Thanksgiving period.”
For the month of November, the airport operated at 54.2% of normal, up from 52% in October and well ahead of prior months. Jensen expects the airport to close out the year at 50% of normal.
“We felt like that’s a pretty good place when looking at the rest of the country, which is running in the 34% range,” he said.
As the airport eyes a return to normal and the revenue that comes with it, it’s backing a new coronavirus relief package, something members of Congress haven’t been able to agree upon, other than to say it’s needed.
The airport’s support includes additional investment in the payroll protection program. The program is supported by the airline industry and the various businesses that rely on airport revenue generated by passengers.
“There’s a lot of associated businesses, restaurants and gift shops and all the other activities happening in an airport that have lost a large percentage of their business,” Jensen said. “We’d support that payroll protection program as long as it’s supporting those associated businesses we have here at the airport.”
The airport is also a year away from completing the first phase of its new passenger terminal, and while construction is moving ahead on schedule, the loss of revenue associated with a decrease in passengers is concerning.
Jensen said the airport would like to see infrastructure funding included in a new coronavirus stimulus bill.
“As we’re working on a rather large project at the moment, our funding is related to our revenues, and that funding in large part has gone away with 50% of our normal passengers,” Jensen said. “We’d love to see some additional support for capital programs like we saw in the first CARES act.”
The first phase of the terminal project is expected to be finished by next December. With contractors already staged at the facility, the airport had planned to roll into the project’s second phase, saving both time and cost.
But the decrease in revenue associated with the pandemic may delay that phase of the project, which included the complete removal of the old terminal and the construction of the east concourse, which includes baggage claim.
“Right now, we believe we’ll finish the first phase and take a time out and see where we’re at in terms of travelers and revenue,” Jensen said. “We’re absolutely supportive of a supplemental bill.”
Delaying Phase 2 of the project could be problematic when the travel industry returns to normal. The Missoula airport had set new passenger records each year for the past 10 years up until the pandemic hit, and it's likely to see those numbers and more after the pandemic.
Next year, both Alaska Airlines and Allegiant will expand local service with four new nonstop flights. Allegiant will add service to Orange County, California, starting next February and Alaska Airlines is adding service to San Jose, San Francisco, and San Diego in March.
“When we return to normal, we do believe the second phase of that terminal will be necessary,” Jensen said. “We will not have enough aircraft parking position and gate areas to accommodate passengers. It’s just a matter of time before we need to build that second phase.”