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Missoula airport planning for post-pandemic lift: New terminal, new flights

Work on the new south concourse terminal at Missoula International Airport continues to move forward. It’ll be needed as the number of flights to and from Missoula continues to grow. (MSO photo)

With the worst of the financial impacts now in the past, Missoula International Airport is looking ahead to the new year, which will bring new flights to new destinations and, in the end, a new passenger terminal.

But until then, the airport must weather what remains of the pandemic storm and see what air carriers do over the coming months. The airport is still trending around 50% of normal capacity, and it saw the number seats available in the Missoula market slip by around 20% in December.

“The West Coast COVID spike definitely didn’t help us,” said Brian Ellestad, deputy airport director. “Alaska did some schedule cutbacks in both December and January.”

The number of seats available in January is trending about 25% below normal, Ellestad said.

A number of service changes slated for January account for the projected reduction. Among them, American Airlines will return to its single daily departure to Dallas/Fort Worth, cutting back from twice daily.

Alaska Airlines also has temporarily halted nonstop service to Portland. The flight will return in February of next year. Ellestad said Delta’s early morning departure to Minneapolis will move to midday.

“United is remaining as is,” Ellestad said. “They’ve probably been the least volatile flight schedule we’ve had.”

While the past year has been challenging for the airline industry and airports across the country, the projection in Missoula points to an uptick starting in February.

Alaska will restore service to Portland and Allegiant Airlines will commence new nonstop service from Missoula to Orange County, California. That flight is scheduled to begin on Feb. 18.

Alaska Airlines will also launch nonstop service to San Diego on March 18 and San Francisco will follow in June.

“Once March hits, we won’t be comparing ourselves to 2020 but rather to 2019,” Ellestad said. “March is when we basically hit bottom and April we had just 1,200 passengers for the whole month. It won’t be apples to apples, so we’ll compare ourselves to 2019.”

Up until the pandemic hit in March, the airport had set year-over-year passenger records for nearly a decade. It was pushing toward the 1 million mark in 2019, setting a new record.

While the future remains uncertain, Ellestad said hope for a vaccine and public confidence could see the airport return to something that resembles normal.

“While December is pretty doom and gloom, next summer, it looks like we’ll have more seats in the market than we did in 2019,” Ellestad said. “All of our seasonal markets will come back. We’re going to have service to Los Angeles on Alaska, United and Allegiant, and service to Orange County on Allegiant.”

The airport is scheduled to complete the first phase of its new $70 million, five-gate passenger terminal on the south concourse by the end of 2021. It will also decide whether to move forward on its three-gate east concourse.

Until then, the airport and the traveling public will have to make do with Missoula’s current terminal, which is small and antiquated. The facility could be hard pressed to accommodate the number of new flights and the passengers they’ll likely attract.

“We’re going to be working with the airlines to make sure we can get everything to fit in our current building,” Ellestad said. “With the vaccine and people’s confidence in Montana, we’re hoping for a great summer coming up.”