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Understaffed ground handlers cause delays, frustration at Missoula airport

Ground handlers at Missoula International Airport work to turn a flight out on schedule. (Missoula Current file photo)

Concerns over a ground-handling company’s ability to keep pace with inbound flights to Missoula International Airport manifested in several frustrating delays as the busy summer season began this month.

In early June, as several carriers began their seasonal flights to Missoula, DGS – the company contracted by Delta and United to conduct ground handling – found itself short staffed and unable to keep pace with inbound flights.

That left several aircraft parked on the ramp for an extended time, some as long as two hours.

“They’re just not able to staff the level they need to,” airport director Cris Jensen said this week. “We did see that first Saturday, the start of our busy season, some extended delays with aircraft on the ramp, and unfortunately passengers sat on airplanes for long periods of times.”

Jensen said airport officials had seen the challenge coming and expressed their concerns over DGS’ ability to keep flights on schedule. He said DGS and United have committed to address the staffing issue and the airport has been handling the complaints.

“It appears the ground handler has brought in some temporary staffing from other stations to help supplement the staffing here,” Jensen said. “This last Saturday was a huge improvement over two Saturdays ago.”

June marks the start of several seasonal routes, including Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Atlanta and San Francisco. Several of those routes are also served year-round by other carriers.

The number of flights, destinations and seats available in Missoula has grown year over year. And while that creates more options for the traveling public, it also means a busier ground operation and crowded holding rooms in the old terminal.

The airport is in the early stage of building a new eight-gate passenger terminal and, along the way, it’s working to lessen the impacts and inconveniences that come with record passenger counts. That includes curbside check-in for both Allegiant and United.

For the month of May, Jensen said, the airport was up nearly 11 percent over the prior May.

“We’re up 17 percent more passenger year to date,” said Jensen. “It’s continued strong growth and it will easily be another record year for us.”