Missoula airport leaving “no stone unturned” in search of revenue to cover COVID losses

The decline in passenger traffic at Missoula International Airport has put a pinch on revenue available to cover daily operations, though airport officials are looking for ways to fill the gap. (Missoula Current file photo)

A decline in passengers due to the pandemic has left Missoula International Airport in a financial pinch, and it’s leaving “no stone unturned” as it seeks revenue to cover operational expenses.

While the airport typically generates a small surplus in revenue, passenger numbers have dwindled and airport revenues have fallen as a result. Airport revenues are down more that $220,000 this year when compared to the same time last year.

“We’re really leaving no stone unturned as we look for ways to get through these unusual circumstances we find ourselves in,” said airport director Cris Jensen. “We’re going out and exhausting every effort to look for funding that might help us.”

Revenue generated by the airport between March and May of last year totaled $1.7 million while expenses totaled around $1.5 million, leaving a surplus of $250,000. This year, however, revenues totaled just $909,000 while expenses topped $1.4 million, leaving a deficit of $556,000.

Airport revenues in May alone were 56% below the same month last year.

“The budget continues to be an area of concern as we look at the revenues associated with passenger traffic essentially drying up,” Jensen said. “Because the airport does not receive tax revenue, except for grants, the money available for us to spend is the money we generate.”

The decline in traffic has put a pinch on revenue available to cover daily operations, though airport officials are looking for ways to fill the gap.

The airport received around $5.6 million from the federal CARES Act, though it can only be applied toward specific expenses. It also received around $179,000 from the CARES Act to support payroll costs for airport ground crews.

“We’re also looking at applying for the FEMA program to reimburse us for expenses related to COVID-19, so we’ll be able to recoup some of those expenses with assistance from the county,” Jensen said. “There’s also some discussion with the county as to whether or not we qualify for additional funding to fund our law enforcement efforts for a period of time under the state CARES Act.”

In June, the airport also drew $200,000 from notes held by First Security Bank to fill monthly cash projections. Airport officials said Tuesday they may consider additional borrowing to reimburse the airport for $3.8 million for expenses once covered by airport reserves and cash flow before the pandemic.

“You can draw on that debt and keep it in the account at First Security until we require it to pay either operating expenses or project expenses as we look forward,” said Teri Norcoss, the airport’s financial manager. “That’s one of the things we’re doing to help with our cash flow.”

While revenue is tight at the airport, it’s also tight for airport tenants who have suffered due to the drop in passenger numbers. The airport gift shop, a longtime staple at the facility, won’t reopen.

“We have been informed by the owners of High Country Gifts that they do not intend to return to business,” Jensen said. “High Country Gifts has been in the terminal for close to 20 years and has done an exceptional job of representing the airport.”

Jensen they’re working with the gift shop on possibly staying open until the new passenger terminal opens in late 2021.