The director of Missoula International Airport on Thursday announced his resignation, ending a 16-year tenure that saw record-high passenger counts and the construction of a $69 million terminal.

Cris Jensen also moved the operation closer to what one Missoula County Airport Authority board member described as a “big city airport.”

The board awarded Jensen a $30,000 exiting bonus and named deputy airport director Brian Ellestad as the acting director for the next six months as the airport enters its busiest season.

Jensen on Thursday said only that he was returning to Reno, Nevada, and gave no further reason for his resignation. He said he'd talk more about his time at the airport next month.

“I will remain in the office and assist with the transition until my last day on April 9,” Jensen wrote in his director's report. “Just know for now that this was a difficult personal decision for me, and that Team MSO will always remain a part of my heart and soul.”

The Missoula County Airport Authority closed a portion of Thursday's monthly meeting titled “airport director contract discussion.” That portion of the agenda had no file attachments and it marked the first time in recent memory that the airport authority has gone into a closed session.

“I have determined that the need for privacy clearly exceeds the merits for public disclosure,” said board chairman Matthew Doucette.

Jensen was named director in 2005 and brought stability to what had been a rocky operation. The three prior directors had left unhappy or under criminal circumstances, including John Seymor, who pleaded guilty to four felony theft charges that included embezzling more than $600,000 in airport funds.

Jensen marked a welcome turnaround and helped revolutionize the airport's operation. In 2011, he was named Airport Executive of the Year by the Northwest Region of American Association of Airport Executives.

The new passenger terminal is expected to open around the end of the year.
The new passenger terminal is expected to open around the end of the year.

Before the pandemic struck, the Missoula airport had set new passenger records nearly year after year, hitting nearly 910,000 passengers in 2019. That represented a nearly 90% increase compared to when Jensen took over in the mid-2000s.

Jensen on Thursday attributed much of the airport's recent success to its staff. After the closed session, the board awarded him a $30,000 exiting bonus.

“In his resignation, he had put forth an ask for a bonus,” said Doucette. “Based on discussion, it has been put forth as $30,000, which is 15 weeks for $2,000 each as an exiting bonus.”

Board members expressed confidence in Ellestad's ability to lead the airport as the summer season sets in. The airport is nearing completion of the new passenger terminal, though it won't open until next January.

Meanwhile, the airport will handle six airlines offering 16 nonstop destinations from the old terminal.

“I feel confident we're in good hands,” said board member Adriane Beck. “We'll get through these next six months.”