With cowboy hats and Texas-shaped cookies, airport officials on Monday announced new nonstop service on American Airlines to Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago, marking a step forward in growing Missoula’s travel options while driving down fares.
The flights, which begin next June, include year-round service to Dallas, opening a region of the country that wasn’t on Missoula’s list of nonstop destinations.
“We’re very happy the service we’ve been focused on is to a part of the country we haven’t had in the past, and that’s Texas,” said airport director Cris Jensen. “It’ll mean easy access to the rest of the world. It’s going to be a hub that gives you lots of connectivity to international flights, as well as domestic flights.”
Jensen joined Destination Missoula and the Missoula Economic Partnership in Monday’s announcement, one that culminates months of work between airport officials and the flagship carrier.
American serves 350 destinations in more than 50 countries and is headquartered in Forth Worth.
“In tourism, it’s important to have as many different connections as we can,” said Barb Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula. “Texas, specifically Dallas and Houston, are some of our biggest markets. We know there’s a lot of Montanans that want to go to Texas, and a lot of Texans that want to come to Montana.”
Over the past year, Jensen and deputy airport director Brian Ellestad have courted both American and United airlines for nonstop service to Texas, with eyes on either Dallas/Fort Worth or Houston.
Along the way, the airport has partnered with a coalition of local groups through Take Flight Missoula in a campaign to establish the revenue needed to guarantee the success of any new route.
James Grunke, president and CEO of Missoula Economic Partnership, said the new flights will serve as a boon to local businesses while saving travelers money through increased competition.
“For economic development, we don’t even look at markets we don’t have a direct flight to for recruitment into our community,” Grunke said. “This opens up a tremendous new market and opportunity for our community.”
While the Dallas flight provides a new destination to the central southwest, seasonal service to Chicago on American will compete directly with the flights currently offered by United Airlines.
When Bozeman landed American Airlines with service to Dallas, the average cost of one-way fares dropped $22. The same held true in Missoula when Delta began competing with Alaska Airlines with service to Seattle.
After six months, one-way fares fell $15.
“We’re going to have increased competition, and that’s what matters in this market,” said Grunke. “It’s not only more seats, but more competition. We’re going to see Missoula businesses save significant dollars in their travel expense, and also Missoulians will save significant dollars.”
The Dallas flight will arrive daily in Missoula at 11:56 a.m. and depart at 1:25 p.m. The Chicago flight, which will operate daily from June to August, will arrive in Missoula at 12:49 p.m. and depart at 12:30 p.m.
Both flights were made possible through a $600,000 air service development grant secured by Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines. As part of that, the community was required to provide a $400,000 match.
When combined with fee waivers provided by the airport, the package amounts to a revenue guarantee valued at more than $1.2 million. Take Flight Missoula is working to make the package permanent.
“This has been a great partnership between tourism, businesses, the airport authority and the community, and it demonstrates why a revenue guarantee, or risk-sharing program, is necessary to have air service,” Grunke said. “We have the ability to offer an airline like American significant funds to come into our market, and we think this is going to be an annual announcement.”
Both flights will be served by a 76-seat Envoy E-175.