By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
The number of seats available on flights leaving Missoula International Airport are expected to increase again this year – as much as 11 percent – as airlines expand their service from the Garden City and do so with larger jets.
Alaska Airlines this week announced a fourth daily flight from Missoula to Seattle, and United Airlines is expected to add a fifth daily flight to Denver during the summer months, according to airport officials.
Brian Ellestad, deputy director of Missoula International Airport, said more than 350,000 passengers boarded a flight in Missoula last year, setting a new airport record. This year, the number of available seats will increase from 406,000 to 450,000, leaving room for additional passenger growth.
“We met with Alaska Airlines three or four months ago now, and we talked about how they would react to Delta Airlines entering the market,” said Ellestad. “They said if they were going to do anything, they were going to add a fourth Seattle flight.”
Alaska Airlines announced that fourth flight this week. The Pacific northwest carrier was the only airline offering nonstop service between Missoula and Seattle until Delta added a daily flight to Seattle in December.
Despite the increase in available seats to Seattle, the load factors for both carriers remains strong. Last January, before Delta entered the market, Alaska achieved a 75 percent load factor – a figure that increased this January to 83 percent.
“Delta started out in December at 96 percent,” said airport director Cris Jensen. “January is typically our slowest time, but they were still at 85 percent in January. Both carriers have good, healthy load factors. We’re encouraged by that.”
United is also adding an additional nonstop flight between Missoula and Denver this summer. Delta and Frontier Airlines are expected to begin serving Missoula with larger jets.
“The Salt Lake City flight has been upgraded to mainline Delta,” Jensen said. “Frontier is getting away from the Airbus 319 and transitioning to the Airbus 320. We’re starting to see larger jets.”
The pace of growth at Missoula International Airport will soon place the city into the Federal Aviation Administration’s small-hub category. Airports are classified by activity and a percentage of passengers.
Jensen said the Missoula airport is currently listed in the non-hub category, though last year’s 350,000 enplanements brings it close to the 380,000 threshold for small-hub status.
“With traffic growing everywhere across the country, that number will slightly increase each year, but we’re growing at a faster rate, so we’ll slowly close the gap,” Jensen said. “At the rate we’re growing, we’ll catch up to that number.”
While the hub status carries funding implications, Jensen said it will have little impact on Missoula’s own terminal renovation and expansion project. That project should be underway before the airport enters the small-hub market.
“We’ll be started on that project before we make the jump to becoming a small hub,” Jensen said. “I don’t see it as being a big issue.”