Economic leaders praise expansion of Alaska Airlines service in Missoula

Described as the single largest expansion of air service in Missoula history, Alaska Airlines plans to begin new routes to San Jose, San Francisco and San Diego next March. Economic leaders praised the move for its ability to connect local businesses to California, and California travelers to Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Tourism and economic leaders on Tuesday praised a move by Alaska Airlines to provide daily nonstop service from Missoula to three California cities, including two near the Silicon Valley, which could aid further economic growth.

Described as the single largest expansion of air service in Missoula history, Alaska plans to begin the routes to San Jose, San Francisco and San Diego next March.

Local tourism officials are already looking for ways to market the service and promote travel to and from Missoula as they attempt to move past the challenges of 2020 and back into a more vibrant economy.

Combined with Alaska’s existing nonstop service from Missoula to Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, the three new routes open the entire West Coast to Missoula, and Missoula to the West Coast.

“This year has been and will continue to be volatile, and much of our marketing efforts are now focused on 2021 and beyond,” said Racine Friede, president and CEO of Glacier Country Tourism. “The timing of their expansion to begin in March is incredibly beneficial to this strategy.”

Alaska will provide the service on an Embraer 175 mainline jet, growing the number of daily seats in the Missoula market by around 230. As one airline official put it, it represents a doubling of Alaska’s service in Missoula and a tripling of its destinations served from Missoula.

“These are direct, easy flights to communities that we have been asking for for a while for both our businesses community and tourism,” said Barb Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula. “These destinations across the West Coast are vital to us. This is going to add capacity to Missoula as far as our visitation goes, and the ability of our community to access worldwide destinations that haven’t been easy to get to previously.”

As tourism and businesses officials look to next year, they hope to see an economy on the mend, and tourism will play a big part in getting there. The industry is one of the top two economic sectors in Montana, and western Montana accounts for roughly 33% of all state visitors.

Of those, roughly 15% arrive in western Montana by air.

“The air transportation industry has a substantial economic impact, both through its own activities and as an enabler of other industries,” said Friede. “Thousands of businesses in the region depend on the travel economy for their livelihood. Strong air access is vital to that happening.”

Direct daily access to California goes beyond leisure travel and vacations. Missoula has seen growth in the high-tech sector, and many local companies have ties with Silicon Valley.

But access to outside markets has long been a challenge for Missoula-based companies, though the new service by Alaska Airlines could bring more jobs, development and economic growth to the city.

“For years we’ve heard from businesses in our fastest growing sectors that many of their strategic partners, their clients and customers are in these markets, and direct service to these cities will facilitate high-paying jobs and more growth in Missoula,” said Grant Kier, president and CEO of Missoula Economic Partnership.

“Many of these companies growing jobs are poised to continue to grow here. One of the contributing factors is their ability to connect to the West Coast and in particular, the Bay Area.”