BELGRADE - The new multi-million dollar terminal at Missoula's airport will open in less than a month.
The goal of the $66.5 project is to welcome bigger crowds, add extra gates, and allow planes carrying hundreds of passengers to come and go from the Missoula Valley. But there's competition as more people fly into and out of the Big Sky State — and sticker shock over rising flight prices is pushing Montanans to get flexible with travel plans.
Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Belgrade has year after year established itself as the busiest airport in Montana. But what sets it apart from airports around the state?
Airport Director Brian Sprenger says it’s of course the valley’s booming population, but also more carriers wanting to expand their footprint in Montana opening up direct flights to more parts of the country.
"One of our focuses as an airport is to make it inexpensive for airplanes to fly to Bozeman," Sprenger says.
"Ultimately, it’s really about demand and if the demand is there the airlines will try to fill that demand. And sometimes that means folks will travel to a place where the price is a little less.”
Rebounding from travel cancellations during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sprenger is expecting another busy summer season.
"What we’re expecting going into summer is we’ll probably see a leveling off of the record traffic that we saw last year. And that record traffic has continued on for 13 months and it will continue on into May as well," Sprenger said.
The airport set an all-time record of 1.94 million passengers in 2021. By comparison, Billings Logan International Airport served over 770,000 passengers last year, just above the Missoula Montana Airport’s 760,000.
So far this year, that number has already grown in Belgrade.
“Over the most recent 12 consecutive months we’ve handled about 2.2 million people in the airport, which equates to 1.1 million inbound and 1.1 million outbound," Sprenger said.
And the number of people is paying off–for the airport, airlines, and travelers.
"In general, we look at each passenger that flies through the airport will generate about $20 for the airport. So passengers go up, the revenue goes up, passengers go down the revenue goes down," he said.
Sprenger says with the revenue generated, they can attract a diversity of airlines with lower carrier prices. That is paying off for Montanans, who are traveling hours to catch cheaper flights.
"It was like three times more leaving out of Missoula," said Avery Elder of Missoula, who traveled with her fiance from Missoula to Belgrade to catch a flight to Raleigh, North Carolina.
"I came to Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport just because flying from Missoula is a little more expensive than it is here. Normally Allegiant and American Airlines are just way better here, that’s my personal opinion, that’s why we drove," she said.
Sprenger says ultimately, the majority of Montanans flying out of the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport are from the Gallatin Valley, but Montanans aren’t afraid to drive to find a deal.