Missoula airport courts United for service to Houston, cites benefits of expanded routes

With passenger counts on the verge of setting another all-time high, the Missoula International Airport is working to expand service to other cities. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

While the number of airline seats available out of Missoula dropped more than 5 percent last month, enplanements increased by the same amount, accounting for more than 2,400 additional passengers.

And while the seats are fewer in number, the growth in passenger counts has pushed load factors out of Missoula International Airport to 85 percent, currently the highest rate in the state.

“We’ll continue to see a reduction in available seats as we head into the fall, but with the increased load factor we’re seeing, it appears that 2017 will again be a record year for Missoula,” airport director Cris Jensen said Tuesday. “We’re currently trending well ahead of last year.”

With their eyes on the future and a terminal expansion poised to begin, airport officials and local business leaders have launched a new campaign aimed at drumming up revenue needed to encourage airlines to enter the local market or expand service.

Among them, the airport has been negotiating with American Airlines for the past year in an effort to launch nonstop service to Dallas/Fort Worth. Last week, airport officials also traveled to Chicago to meet with United Airlines about service to Houston.

“It’s probably one of the best meetings we’ve had,” said Brian Ellestad, deputy airport director. “The market is up and they’re very excited about their performance this past summer. We continue to work for Texas service, so Houston is in play.”

Backers have been working for nearly three years to establish a program capable of generating the revenue needed to make the city more competitive in the changing world of air travel.

That effort took a promising step forward last week when the Missoula County Airport Authority met with local business and tourism leaders to generate roughly $250,000 in annual revenue, which the community will offer airlines in a push to expand service.

Doing so could drive down fares and bolster local travel, a boon to businesses across the city.

“Incentives are important and usually give a return on investment,” Ellestad said, pointing to statistics from other cities that have successfully added new air service. Among them, Bozeman landed nonstop service to Dallas on American, which resulted in a $22 decrease for a one-way ticket.

“When you multiply that on the stimulation of the market in new air service, just in new passenger savings, that’s $168,000,” Ellestad said. “It means real money.”

Other airports have reported similar passenger savings, including Jackson Hole, which landed service to Los Angeles. Missoula also saw a reduction in fares when Frontier Airlines entered the local market.

Ellestad said the airport has seen results from offering in-kind financial incentives for expanded service. When Allegiant Airlines approached airport officials about a Los Angeles route over the winter, the airport provided roughly $52,000 in incentives, including free ground handling.

The airport made that up by drawing more passengers and what they spend on parking, coffee and other local amenities.

“If you do a conservative 70-percent load factor, that’s about $80,000 that we gained, so that’s a $27,000 net,” Ellestad said. “It’s well worth the incentives. Nine times out of 10 it’s a net win for giving incentives for competition in the market.”