Commercial air service into Missoula International Airport has fallen to a trickle over the past month, and airport officials are bracing for a challenging future as airlines respond to the economic headwinds.
Fewer than 125,000 passengers are passing through airport security nationally on a daily basis, leaving commercial air travel just 5% of what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Missoula isn’t any different.
“We’re mirroring it right now,” said Brian Ellestad, deputy director of the Missoula airport. “The airlines are responding to the lack of demand. On all routes, for the month of April, we’re pretty much down 70% on seats.”
The airport, along with tourism and businesses across Missoula, has spent years growing the city’s transportation options, attracting new carriers and new destinations. Passenger counts have set new records each year for nearly a decade, with last year’s figures topping 907,000 people.
But that all stalled in mid-March as passenger figures began to fall. Now, with April nearly in the books, the Missoula airport will likely see as many passengers for the entire month as it would normally see on a summer day.
“There’s a lot of unknowns right now,” said Ellestad. “We’re planning, forecasting and forecasting. We’re trying to get our crystal ball from hazy to a little more clear. There’s a lot of ongoing conversations we’ll be having with staff and the board.”
The Missoula County Airport Authority this week learned just how bleak the situation was as Ellestad listed the changes in air service and the routes that will likely vanish, at least temporarily.
Delta Airlines has reduced Salt Lake City service to two daily flights, though one of those flights is periodically canceled. Alaska Airlines now offers just one daily flight to Seattle and is no longer offering service to Portland or Los Angeles.
While American Airlines is still running service to Dallas/Fort Worth, weekend service has been questionable, Ellestad said. United Airlines also has cut service to Denver.
“Denver is down to a single overnight, and that’s been pretty sporadic to be honest,” Ellestad said. “We haven’t seen any airplanes from Allegiant all month, and Minneapolis is gone for April and May.”
As the carriers cut the number of flights, they’re also holding back on planned upgrades in the Missoula market. American Airlines had planned to begin mainline jet service this summer, though it will likely stay with its smaller Embraer 175.
Alaskan Airline also was scheduled to begin mainline service in Missoula, though Ellestad believes that’s been pushed back to July at the earliest. He said many carriers are still evaluating the situation.
“Allegiant is still evaluating their schedule, but we’re pretty sure there will be no Oakland this summer and Los Angeles is probably 50-50 at best,” said Ellestad. “I would say Mesa is probably more of the sure thing, and Las Vegas – that all depends on when they reopen the Strip, and then they’ll have to see how customer comfort plays into travel.”
Ellestad said the long-term picture is “kind of gloom and doom right now.” United Airlines this week said revenues were down $100 million and it will likely fly fewer people for the entire month of May than it would on a single day.
“Delta thinks it’s going to be a three-year rebound,” Ellestad said.
The loss of service and passengers has put a pinch on airport revenues, though Congress stepped in to help late last month.
Airports across Montana received funding in the recently passed CARES Act, though Missoula’s portion was just $5.6 million. In comparison, the airport in Bozeman netted $18 million.
That left airport officials scratching their heads.
“We saw some disparity in the CARES Act numbers in terms of the dollars that were received by our size versus, for example, an airport the size of West Yellowstone,” said airport director Cris Jensen. “I did write a letter to the deputy administrator for airports for the FAA. I was pleasantly surprised that we had a response.”
Jensen said the Missoula airport could receive additional funding to compensate for the disparity in dispersed funds. That could be needed to cover lost revenue while covering debt from the first phase of the new passenger terminal, which is now a year into construction.