Missoula airport sees drop in passengers; operating revenue continues to dip

While major U.S. airlines draft internal plans for a potential shutdown of all domestic flights, Missoula International Airport is already dealing with a drop in passengers and daily flights.

Airport officials said traffic had fallen to just 20% of what’s normal for this time of year. On Tuesday, only 200 passengers were booked on an outbound Missoula flight while the number should be closer to 1,500.

“Our traffic is certainly down,” said airport director Cris Jensen. “We are seeing airlines selectively cancel flights based upon loads and trying to consolidate passengers in the aircraft, as opposed to flying multiple airplanes with fewer passengers.”

Jensen said the schedules and cancellations change by the day. So far, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Delta Airlines have each canceled local flights to Denver, Portland and Salt Lake City.

“It’s a day-by-day thing right now, certainly for the airlines and for the airport,” Jensen said. “As the day evolves, that tends to change, as well as passengers not showing up or making last-minute changes to their itinerary. We still have other flights on the schedule, but airlines are trying to move passengers to different flights.”

In a letter this week, Allegiant Airlines CEO Scott Sheldon said the carrier wasn’t as deeply impacted as other carriers in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. But that has since changed.

Allegiant serves a number of popular destinations from Missoula, all of which have been impacted by the virus, including Las Vegas, where most casinos have been closed, and Mesa, where spring baseball training was canceled.

“We have reduced our flight schedule significantly, but are working to preserve flights where we are able,” said Sheldon. “Temporarily reducing our schedule is just one of many strategic steps we are taking as a company to maintain financial stability now. In many areas, our presence means jobs, tourism and economic impact as well as flights, and we are as committed to local recovery as we are to serving our customers.”

The drop in passengers and service at MSO has taken a bite out of airport revenues, and at a critical time. The airport is deep into Phase 1 construction of its new passenger terminal, and it’s set to begin drafting its new Fiscal Year budget.

This week, Jensen said, the airport has been in contact with both Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines. He said the delegation has been supportive, though it’s not yet known how the coronavirus stimulus package announced on Wednesday will support Montana’s regional airports.

With the drop in flights and passengers, along with associated business, airport revenues are dropping quickly, Jensen said.

“The economic impacts will be devastating,” Jensen said. “All of those things, it’s a big snowball rolling down hill right now. Our staff is working to slash the budget. We’ve been working hard at getting our current Fiscal Year budget under control, and as soon as we have that complete, we’ll start working on the upcoming Fiscal Year budget.”

Still, Jensen said he expects funding to be tight for the foreseeable future. It’s not yet known how airlines will respond to a temporary reduction in demand, or how quickly flights and passengers will return once the pandemic lifts.

“It looks to me like it’s gong to be a long-term impact,” Jensen said. “Operationally, it’s going to be tight for a while. The good news is, it appears there’s an effort in D.C. to get us some relief. Just as important to us is having some flexibility.”

Typically, Jensen said, federal funding would be earmarked for capital improvements. But potential relief from Washington, D.C., could be expanded to cover operational funds.

“That’s really going to help us get through this period of time where it’s going to be tight,” Jensen said.

Jensen said the airport will continue Phase 1 construction of its new passenger terminal. The facility is needed to replace the airport’s antiquated and costly old terminal. Once business returns to normal, the added space offered by the new terminal will be needed.

“We generally had all our funding package in place for that project, and we feel comfortable with where we’re at today,” Jensen said. “We can’t say exactly what the timeline looks like. But we are planning for the other side of this tunnel, and we do believe there will be a point in time where we’re going to desperately need that terminal.”