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Passenger counts at MSO rebound: Carriers extend service to Chicago, Minneapolis, San Fran

An American Airlines flight to Dallas/Fort Worth prepares to board at Missoula International Airport. United and American are both extending service to Chicago while Delta adds a second flight to Minneapolis. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Passenger counts at Missoula International Airport continue to inch toward normal levels faster than the national average, and even seasonal flights serving the city are planning to stay longer this year than initially planned.

Missoula’s passenger counts in May stood at 85% of the 2019 average while the U.S. Transportation Security Administration logged multiple days with more than 2 million national passengers.

That’s up from the depths of the the pandemic where Missoula logged fewer than 100 passengers daily and 100,000 national passengers.

“In Missoula, we continue to outpace the national average, and we are having 2,000 or more weekend passengers,” said interim airport director Brian Ellestad. “We’re creeping back up. Overall, I think June will be very close to 2019 numbers, and July may possibly exceed 2019.”

The airport in 2019 handled nearly 908,000 passengers, marking an increase of nearly 60,000 more passengers over the prior year – a jump of roughly 7%. Since 2000, passenger traffic at the Missoula airport has jumped 97%.

But the pandemic took a big bite out of air travel, including Missoula. The airport closed 2020 with less than 208,500 departing passenger and around 209,000 arriving passengers.

Now, the numbers have turned back around and the airlines are responding. Earlier this year, Alaska Airlines launched service to San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco. Allegiant Airlines followed by offering nonstop service to both Los Angeles and Portland.

“United and American are both going to extend Chicago into early October. That’s the longest we’ve had Chicago in our market,” Ellestad said. “United will be extending San Francisco into early October.”

The number of seats into various markets from Missoula continues to expand, and new flights could be on the horizon. In March, Ellestad suggested that destinations like Phoenix, Austin or Nashville may be possible, or other top destinations.

Of the most traveled markets from Missoula not currently served with direct service, Boston tops the list, followed by Oakland, Phoenix, Sacramento, Atlanta and Orlando. Also scoring high are Washington, D.C, New York LaGuardia, Houston and New Jersey, among others.

“Chicago and San Francisco continue to be our most requested business markets, so it was great to get them added to our fall schedule,” Ellestad said. “Our state air service conference will be held in Great Falls in September. That will be where we start our new service recruitment for 2022.”

For now, Ellestad said, the number of seats in the Missoula market continues to grow.

“We’re about 30% more seats this September versus 2019,” he said. “And this weekend, Delta added a second round trip to Minneapolis for September. All the airlines are seeing a demand here and are adding service.”

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