American Airlines in Missoula prompts upgrades, competition from other carriers

The first American Airlines inbound flight from Dallas/Fort Worth crosses under a water-canon salute at Missoula International Airport on June 7, 2018. The carrier’s arrival in Missoula has boosted competition and upgrades from other airlines that serve the market. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When advocates of expanded air services to and from Missoula greeted American Airlines in the spring, they believed it would boost passenger counts and bring new competition to the market.

As fall arrives, it appears their plan has paid off.

“United came into our market with mainline aircraft to Denver, so they boosted our capacity, just on United, by 39 percent from the time American started service in early June,” said Brian Ellestad, the airport’s deputy director. “Not only did they start mainline service to Denver, they also extended San Francisco later into the fall.”

Such large increases in capacity have pushed the airport’s passenger counts toward yet another record. As August winds down, the airport expects to cross the 400,000 mark for the first time in its history.

To put that into perspective, airport director Cris Jensen said, the airport reached the 200,000 mark for the first time in 1998. It didn’t crest 300,000 until 2012 – a span of 14 years. It has since added 100,000 additional passengers in six years.

“We have 65,000 more seats in our market this year than we had last year,” Jensen said. “For comparison sake, Billings has 7,000 more seats in their market this year than last. While it’s a very positive story, the terminal building in many ways has become the limiting factor.”

The airport plans to break ground on a modern passenger terminal in January – a project that’s expected to take several years and upward of $70 million to complete.

But for those who advocated for expanded air service as way to increase local tourism, drive down travel costs and give local businesses the tools to compete on the national stage, the growth is welcome.

Many of those boosters provided funding as a revenue guarantee to bring American into the market.

“What American did for Dallas is give us connections to over 160 destinations,” Ellestad said. “Of those 160 destinations, 60 cities became one stop versus two stop.”

Those one-stop destinations include smaller cities across the southeast, as well as Lima, Buenos Aries and Bogota in South America.

The airport will know how the expanded service and increased competition has impacted ticket prices early next year when the Department of Transportation releases the data.

“Bozeman and Billings, when they got American service, airfare to Dallas dropped around 6 to 7 percent for a ticket,” Ellestad said. “That can be substantial. Traffic between both those cities actually boosted over 40 percent. That turns out to be a big number real quick.”

While United upgraded from its smaller regional jets to a mainline Airbus A-319 out of Missoula, other airlines have also added capacity. Alaska also added more frequency to Portland for the holidays.

“Delta increased its capacity 8 percent, and Alaskan 10 percent, so all said, it’s 25 percent more growth the second half of our year,” Ellestad said. “If you’re traveling, it’s a good time because ticket prices should have gone down.”