As airlines find their footing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, summer route schedules suggest Missoula could regain several markets, though on smaller aircraft and a less frequent schedule.
Calling it good news and bad, airport officials on Tuesday said traffic through Missoula tipped up to between 15% and 20% of normal over the Memorial Day weekend, outpacing the 12% average nationally.
This time last month, passenger counts were just 5% of normal.
“As I look at the other airports in the state of Montana, I see a similar trend with them as well,” airport director Cris Jensen said. “The good news is we’re up to 20%. The bad news is we’re down to 20%.”
The airport saw 1,383 outbound passengers and 1,460 inbound passengers through the entire month of April. Those figures would be logged every day in Missoula under normal conditions.
Inbound traffic from Texas and Arizona has been a little stronger, though even that’s not unexpected as summer dawns in Montana and the southern states heat up.
“You have a migration of snowbirds this time of year,” said deputy director Brian Ellestad. “We see quite a few people coming up from Mesa (Arizona) this time of year to relocate for the summer, so it’s not unusual.”
While the trickle of passengers intensifies to a meager brook, the trend is moving in the right direction and looks more positive than it did last month. With optimism growing, route planners for the airlines have begun releasing their summer schedules.
Missoula had lost service to Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Portland during the pandemic, and each represented a year-round market. Service to Atlanta and Chicago were also cut.
But looking toward summer, Ellestad believes a number of routes will return, even if on smaller jets.
“Delta published July, so we know Minneapolis is coming back, granted on a regional jet versus mainline, and one flight a day instead of two,” Ellestad said. “But at least we get that East Coast connection coming back for July.”
Ellestad also expects that American Airlines will restore service to Chicago, and United Airlines will do the same in San Francisco. Frontier Airlines will likely restore seasonal service to Denver starting July 3.
Allegiant Airlines remains unknown, as do other routes from Missoula that existed before the pandemic.
“We believe the leisure markets will rebound first, which will drive better traffic for us,” Ellestad said, saying the airport will continue to analyze trends and look for opportunities.
The trickle in air traffic has made it difficult for the airport to develop its next Fiscal Year budget. It’s also looking for ways to accommodate the concessionaires that operate at the airport and depend upon passengers.
That includes car rentals, the gift shop, and food and beverage.
“One of the bigger challenges we’re dealing with right now is that we have multiple tenants and concessions that are suffering, and each one of them is a different case,” said Jensen. “It’s been somewhat challenging and even emotional. These are small business people in a lot of cases who are truly struggling.”
The airport will consider reducing landing fees for carriers in an effort to incentivize their return to the Missoula market. It’s also looking for ways to accommodate concessionaires that operate at the facility – all while keeping an eye on its own operating budget.
“The car rental companies are impacted fairly drastically,” said Lynn Fagen, the airport’s administrative manager. “They were not quite half way through the (fiscal) year when this thing hit, and they’re very worried about those numbers. We have another meeting with them tomorrow.”
Among the car rentals, Hertz is looking at possible bankruptcy, and two other rental companies are locally owned and considered a small franchise. The airport gift shop, also locally owned, has been closed for two months and has seen revenues tank.
“We met with the owners last week – they’re a small businesses,” said Fagen. “And it’s a huge impact when you think about us taking a 90% hit on revenue and translating that to a small business. It’s very tough.”