Missoula airport feeling optimistic as airlines eye fall schedules, potential cuts

Smoke hangs over Johnson-Bell Field and Missoula International Airport as construction on the first phase of the new passenger terminal advances. (Photo courtesy of Missoula International Airport)

Missoula International Airport will be watching closely as Congress debates another coronavirus stimulus bill, saying the outcome could determine what the nation’s carriers do in response as they continue to grapple with a decrease in passengers.

Last month, airport officials were bracing for a potential reduction in service starting in October as CARES Act funding given to the airline industry earlier this year expires at the end of this month.

However, airport officials are now feeling more confident.

“We’re starting to feel pretty comfortable that we’re not going to see those cuts,” airport director Cris Jensen said Tuesday. “We had a call with United last week and it was surprisingly optimistic. It was a good thing to see. I think airlines are starting to feel comfortable that Montana is doing better than many areas.”

While the Missoula airport has set new passenger records each year for nearly 10 years – 908,000 passengers in 2019 – this year it’s unlikely to surpass 200,000 passengers by year’s end. Traffic counts were low in March and April and early spring, through they’ve begun to rebound in recent months.

Flights are leaving the Missoula airport at roughly 50% capacity. The national average is around 35%.

“We had the big dip in early March and April but since then, everything has been very consistent,” said Brian Ellestad, the airport’s deputy director. “What the airlines are doing now is rolling September (schedules) into October and October into November. We’ll see where that goes.”

Airlines were eligible under the CARES Act to receive more than $50 billion in loans and grants. A portion of that was designed to help airlines retain pilots and other workers as demand for service plummeted early in the pandemic.

But airlines have only partially recovered from the crisis and face a dire financial situation in the months ahead. American has said that its capacity in the fourth quarter will be only half of that a year ago.

Congress is debating several versions of a new CARES Act package and the outcome could implicate what carriers do in response as they look to navigate the pandemic’s economic impacts.

“There’s a Senate version and House version, and I think the House version would have a pretty big benefit to the world of aviation, not just the airlines but the airports as well,” Jensen said. “The Senate is pushing more of a skinny bill. They need to get together and resolve those two before we see any action on that.”