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Tester makes dark of morning trip to catch Missoula flight; options still limited

Sen. Jon Tester on Monday left his Big Sandy farm shortly after 1 a.m. to drive to Missoula to catch a morning flight to Denver ahead of a connection to Washington, D.C.

With airlines cutting back due to a drop in passengers, travel options are limited. Making the hours-long trip from central Montana to Missoula in the dark of morning wasn’t ideal, but these are difficult times for the airline industry.

“It was the only flight I could get out,” Tester said during a layover at Denver International Airport. “The ones out of Great Falls and Helena were overnighters. The last 15 miles into Missoula were pretty rough, as far as trying to stay awake.”

Those that rely on air service for business, including Montana’s congressional delegation, have seen flights canceled over the past few weeks, making travel challenging.

Since the middle of March, flights that have departed on schedule often left empty, accommodating just a handful of passengers. That prompted airlines to reduce service and rework their schedules.

“The last flight I went in on six or seven weeks ago into D.C., we took Delta,” Tester said. “The flight between Minneapolis and D.C. had 13 people on it. But there’s more people on this flight (from Missoula) for sure. The lady up front said it was the busiest flight they’ve had in 10 weeks out of Missoula.”

Cris Jensen, director of Missoula International Airport, said passenger counts have begun climbing in recent days, though they remain miles away from the roughly 1,500 passengers the airport should be seeing this time of year.

On Monday, the airport saw around 140 passengers pass through security.

“We’re back in the hundreds of passengers per day, generally, versus tens of passengers,” Jensen said. “We still haven’t seen 200 in a day. But at the lowest of the low, we were around 30 to 40 passengers per day, so it has come up a little bit.”

While the numbers are ticking up, Jensen expects the next few weeks to be telling. If the virus remains quiet and consumer confidence returns, he believes the numbers will continue to climb.

But if the virus rebounds, it could mark another setback.

“I don’t expect them to creep up to what we’d expect to be normal – it’s going to be dependent upon whether or not people feel comfortable they can travel safely,” Jensen said. “If there’s a spike in the virus, that could influence people’s decisions. It’s a day by day thing we’re watching.”

Tester said he was uneasy about flying, though Congress has been called back to Washington. A vote was expected late Monday night on whether to nominate a former Mitch McConnell intern to District Court, followed by a vote Tuesday on an inspector general nominated by President Donald Trump.

“I wish there would have been plans to do more of this virtually, as far as voting,” Tester said. “I think most of the committee meetings will be done teleconference.”

With caution in the air, Tester said United Airlines out of Missoula offered masks to passengers who didn’t have one. When he arrived in Denver, the airport was largely empty, though a few stores were open in the United concourse.

“This Denver airport, maybe a quarter full, maybe 10%,” Tester said. “I see more planes than I expected, just not a lot of people.”

Staffers for Sen. Steve Daines said he had two layovers getting back to D.C.

“These are very difficult times for industries across the board, including for airlines,” said a spokesperson for Daines. “Senator Daines believes it’s critical the Senate is in session and continues working on important issues to guide our nation through this pandemic.”