MSO airport embarks on plans for new passenger terminal as traffic grows

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The current terminal represents a patchwork of projects dating back to 1958 when the building’s first segment was constructed. Nearly a dozen expansions have taken place since then, leaving a facility that is both inefficient and outdated. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

Missoula International Airport has officially embarked on plans to expand or rebuild its dated passenger terminal, a project that grows increasingly urgent as passenger counts grow year over year and air service expands.

The airport’s board of directors this week approved a contract with Morrison-Maierle and A&E Architects to begin planning and researching future terminal layouts, followed by the eventual design of a new concourse.

“We’ve been going out and looking at other airports to see what works and what doesn’t work,” said airport director Cris Jensen. “The scope we have in our contract is to evaluate four different terminal configurations. We’ll look at a concourse layout and we’ll evaluate a number of options.”

Jensen said the airport last updated its Terminal Area Master Plan in 2013. The plan made three projections on future passenger growth, and the airport has surpassed them all.

Last year, 351,000 people boarded a plane at the airport. That was up 5 percent over 2014. The airport topped the 300,000 mark for the first time in 2012 and is on course this year to set a new record.

“Growth is well ahead of what we expected,” Jensen said. “The old master plan proposed a seven-gate facility. As it stands today, given our current operations, we need eight gates. That old plan is already outdated – we’ve grown beyond it.”

The current facility offers three gates.

The push to update the airport’s Terminal Area Master Plan will begin next month and detail the schedule moving forward. The plan should be completed by December, with design following next year.

“We’ll immediately roll into the design of the new terminal,” said Jensen. “We think it will take 18 months and we’ll immediately move into the next phase with construction. We do want to design it in a way that we can expand it as easily and as inexpensively as possible.”

The older master plan made four recommendations for a future terminal, including a linear configuration, a single-pier design with jet parking on both sides, and a double-pier design with jet parking on both sides.

Jensen said the new plan will also look at the condition of the existing building. The current terminal represents a patchwork of projects dating back to 1958 when the building’s first segment was constructed. Nearly a dozen expansions have taken place since then, leaving a facility that is both inefficient and outdated.

“There’s going to be four different possible versions we’d consider as a group, and we want to spend a lot more time on technology,” Jensen said. “Those are the types of things we want to include more of in this next version of the master plan.”

Jensen said early estimates suggest it would cost more to remodel and expand the current structure than it would to build a new terminal from the ground up. The airport has an early budget of roughly $42 million, though that could increase with additional funding from the Federal Aviation Administration.

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The last Terminal Area Mast Plan included several configurations for a new passenger terminal. The new plan will be followed by design and construction.

“The FAA is proposing to give us $11.5 million,” Jensen told the board of directors. “It’s not a done deal – we have to compete for the money. But we’re in a pretty good position to get it.”

Jeffry Roth, chairman of the board of directors, said Bozeman is also looking at an airport expansion. He urged his fellow board members to think ahead and consider the role Missoula’s airport plays as an economic driver.

“Our air service numbers for this summer are double-digit increases over last summer, which were also double-digit increases over what they were the year before,” he said. “We’ve got to figure this out and think ahead and plan down the road.”

As the airport looks to the future, it’s also working to meet its immediate needs, including public parking. Jensen said several old aircraft hangers located west of the current parking lot have been removed to make way for expanded parking.

The parking expansion will add roughly 600 spaces and be open by year’s end.

“If you look today, we’re in overflow parking and we’re constantly dealing with parking overflow,” Jensen said. “We should be able to improve our parking situation substantially here by the end of summer.”