MSO meets with airlines as terminal plans progress

Missoula International Airport met with airline representatives and ground handlers on Tuesday as it moves forward with plans to build a new passenger terminal.

By Martin Kidston

Passenger seating, baggage handling and aircraft parking led the opening round of talks at Missoula International Airport on Tuesday, where officials met with airline representatives and ground handlers regarding their vision for a new airport terminal.

Tuesday’s discussion, the first of many planned over the coming weeks, will culminate with an updated Terminal Area Master Plan. The plan will inform the design of a new $45 million terminal and include the recommendations of industry experts.

“As far as United goes, just a few years ago we were primarily a 50-seat operation,” said Chris Ellsworth with United Airlines. “Now those 50 seaters are going to go away from many cities, and they’ll go away fairly quickly over the coming years.”

The cramped CRJs, or 50-seaters, have already given way in Missoula to larger regional jets. This summer, Ellsworth said, United also began serving the city with larger mainline jets – a trend that could continue as passenger counts climb.

Missoula customers who fly Alaska Airlines may also see a change in aircraft. Alaska currently provides Missoula nonstop service to Portland and Seattle with the prop-driven Q400s, though the airline is now transitioning to new Embraer jets.

“We’ve definitely had conversations with Alaska about a potential change in aircraft,” said Cris Jensen, director of Missoula International Airport. “I think the Seattle and Portland service, as long as the Q-400s are in the fleet, are going to be the aircraft that we see. But if we were to see Alaska fly, for example, a Los Angeles route, you might see the E-jet.”

The current terminal represents a patchwork of projects dating back to 1958, creating a facility that’s both inefficient and outdated. Increasing jet sizes and growing passenger counts have also overwhelmed the airport’s systems, including baggage handling, passenger flow and aircraft parking.

Joined by Price Studios and Morrison-Maierle Architects, those behind the terminal plan have already identified the need for eight aircraft gates, with room to expand as service grows. Airline representatives have also addressed the need for additional aircraft parking and passenger seating.

“I don’t know that we’d want multiple gates, but certainly if there’s more than one common-use gate, or an overflow gate for each airline, that’s something we’d certainly be interested in,” said Ellsworth. “Many times we have three flights on the ground there at once. Having access to an additional gate with some degree of assurance that all of us are going to be able to park a plane without having to hold short while we’re waiting for them to push back – that would be important to us.”

Anna Brock said passenger seating has also become an issue with Alaska Airlines. It remains one of the few flights boarded in Missoula from the ground level. If the airport maintains ground-level boarding in the future, Brock said, Alaska would like to see an expanded seating area.

“We need larger boarding areas,” Brock said, representing Alaska. “Right now, they’re not big enough for our flight. We need restrooms on the ground floor past security if there’s going to be ground-floor boarding for our flights. We’d also like to have the use of a jet bridge in case the aircraft type does change.”

Exactly what design the new terminal will take is still a few months away, though early input has already explored the pros and cons of ground-level boarding versus boarding from the second level.

Jesse George, a ground handler with DGS Aviation, said ground boarding limits equipment storage and the operations that typically play out below the passenger area. The arrangement can also make it difficult for employees to stage for inbound flights, slowing the turnaround process.

Ellsworth agreed that ground boarding has its benefits and disadvantages.

“In Detroit, they have ground boarding where they’ve pitched the jet bridge from the ground floor up to the aircraft,” he said. “From an operational standpoint, it limits the amount of space you have to work in and around for parking equipment, staging employees and that sort of thing. But it eliminates having to move passengers up to a second level.”

Baggage handling, ticketing and security also remain areas that will be improved upon in a new passenger terminal. The number of passengers served by the airport has overwhelmed baggage claim, and airlines would like to see the process of loading and unloading sped up to improve turnaround times.

“You have that peak time where you have multiple flights hitting the ground at the same time, or hitting baggage claim at the same time,” said Jensen. “But the bigger change is that we have more mainline aircraft, and bigger aircraft.”Frontier-Airlines---Airbus

Jensen said the system was designed for the smaller CRJs that seat 50 passengers, not the 180-seat jets used by Frontier and Allegiant airlines.

“You have the potential for 180 seats to show up and hit the baggage claim, and it was never designed for that,” Jensen said. “The CRJ aircraft – no problem. But when you’re throwing a 180-seat Airbus in there, it will overwhelm the space. The aircraft type is driving our challenges in baggage claim as much as anything.”

Rapid changes in technology also remain a moving target. Brock said Alaska is moving away from its reliance on the ticket counter by enabling passengers to do most of their own checking in. The new terminal should also consider new mandates from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, as well as new technology.

“Every time they (TSA) change equipment types, we have to go back in there and cut the floor,” Jensen said. “I’d love to see some kind of system that allows us to access the power and data to support whatever equipment they have, and add however many security lanes they need without having to go through a major construction project to do it.”

While the airport has been a good partner to the airlines, Ellsworth said, the current facility needs to change. At the same time, he cautioned airport officials to keep rates and charges as low as possible.

“It’s important to do something, but don’t overdue it,” Ellsworth said. “Keeping our rates and charges reasonable is something that’s important not just to United, but all the airlines. There’s examples of airports around the country that maybe overdid it, and that’s been less beneficial for them.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com