Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A federal grant directed toward smaller airports to expand service could help Missoula Montana Airport land year-round flights to Chicago.

Missoula County commissioners this week signed a letter supporting the airport's application for the Small Community Air Service Development Grant, which would help fund year-round service to Chicago O'Hare Airport.

Both United and American airlines currently provide seasonal service from Missoula to Chicago.

“The (grant) is a crucial opportunity to support the development of air service that meets the needs of our unique region,” the county said. “We are confident that year-round service to (Chicago) will be a sustainable and successful addition to (Missoula), bringing long-term benefits to western Montana.”

The airport in recent months, along with the Missoula Economic Partnership, has hinted at the possibility of submitting a grant application. MEP has said that fundraising to match the grant has been strong.

Airport officials have also expressed a desire to apply the grant to open service to the East Coast. As it stands, a majority of the flights from Missoula connect cities in the West, and most major cities along the West Coast.

“I would think either American or United would be interested in doing the (Chicago) route,” airport director Brian Ellestad said Wednesday. “It would open up additional East Coast connection opportunities.”

According to the county, year-round service to Chicago would bring a number of benefits, from regional connectivity to tourism and hospitality. It also would provide an economic impact, the county said.

“Improved air service is vital for economic growth in our region. The nonstop connection to (Chicago) would attract new businesses, support existing industries and create jobs. It would also facilitate the movement of goods and services, which is crucial for the economic vitality of our rural and semi-rural communities,” the county wrote in its letter of support.

Ellestad said he was unsure when the U.S. Department of Transportation would announce the grant's success.