New air service may be headed to Missoula

By Martin Kidston

The planes flying over Missoula on approach to Missoula International Airport could be sporting an unfamiliar logo in the coming months, though exactly what it might be is currently under wraps.

Word of new air service has begun circulating in certain circles, though those in the know aren’t yet willing to release any details until the deal is closed.

But for all you dreamers, business types and inspiring travelers, a deal is apparently afoot.

“I think we’re going to have a very good, exciting announcement in the air services in the coming months, one the community is going to be very proud of,” James Grunke, president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership, said this week.

That’s about all Grunke was willing to divulge, but if you put the pieces together, certain possibilities rise to the top.

Over the past few months, the Missoula Current has reported on efforts by the local Air Service Task Force to establish a revenue guarantee to help grow the city’s air service and, by doing so, drive down ticket prices.

What does expanded service mean? In the words of airport officials and the Missoula Economic Partnership, it could include converting a seasonal route into a year-round route for a city currently served from Missoula – think San Francisco or Chicago.

But it could also mean an entirely new route, possibly served by an airline new to Missoula.

While the Missoula Economic Partnership works to build a revenue guarantee, the airport this year landed a $600,000 Small Community Air Service Development grant. On top of that, local businesses last year invested $400,000 toward the cause. The combined efforts have created a package valued at $1.2 million when in-kind services from the airport are included.

With the package in hand, airport officials in Missoula have been quietly meeting with airline officials, most recently in Kentucky. This week, they confirmed their efforts, saying they’d likely have an announcement in the coming months.

“We had the opportunity to meet with a couple airlines, one of them was American and the other was Southwest,” said Airport Director Cris Jensen. “I will just say that both meetings were very positive and both warrant further conversation and reason to be optimistic.”

Aided by a revenue guarantee and a similar air service grant, Bozeman recently landed nonstop service to Texas on American Airlines. Airport officials in Missoula have also been coveting nonstop service to either Dallas/Fort Worth, served by American, or Houston, served by United.

Next month, Jensen said, airport officials in Missoula will also travel to Atlanta to meet with Delta. While service to Texas on either Delta or American isn’t new news, talks with Southwest are. The possibilities there are equally tantalizing.

Over the past few months, the Missoula Current also has been reporting on the airport’s plans to design and build a new passenger terminal. The timing couldn’t be more critical.

Over the past year, passenger growth in Missoula has outpaced all other Montana cities, at 9.9 percent. In comparison, Bozeman grew its passenger counts by 8.9 percent and Billings by 0.8 percent.

Year to date, Missoula stands as Montana’s third busiest airport, with 290,451 passenger boardings. Bozeman remains the busiest at 435,120 boardings this year, followed by Billings at 319,054.

With more routes to choose from, it’s safe to assume that Missoula’s passenger count will continue to grow, especially if additional air service works to drive down ticket prices and open new markets that once took two or three stops to reach.

If the Texas market opens up, one can reach Mexico City, Cancun or even Qatar on a single stop. As for Southwest, the possibilities there are nearly endless.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com