Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Montana's busiest airports on Tuesday praised funding included by Sen. Jon Tester in a bill to further fund the Federal Aviation Administration.

The measure, which will help increase affordable air service in Montana and expand the number of flight options, passed the Senate last week.

“Reliable and affordable air service is essential for Montanans to run their businesses, see their friends and families, and stay connected with the rest of the country, but too often rural airports fall through the cracks,” Tester said in a statement.

The reauthorization bill includes the Small Community Air Service Enhancement Act, which has helped Missoula Montana Airport and others in the state compete for grants to attract new carriers.

The airport has used the funding to bring new carriers to Missoula when matched with local funds. The airport is midway through an expansion of its new passenger terminal and set a new record for the number of passengers last year.

It expects to exceed that record again this year with expanded service, including the addition of Sun Country Airlines to the market.

“Enhancing the Small Community Air Service Development Program is critical to ensuring that travelers have continued access to the nation’s air transportation system,” said Missoula airport director Brian Ellestad. “Missoula has successfully utilized this program to create new air service that has reduced air fare and created economic opportunities and good-paying jobs for our community.”

Glacier Airport also has seen an increase in passengers and it, too, is pushing through a terminal project. Airport director Rob Ratowski said the rise in tourism and new round of funding will help the airport explore new routes.

“This funding will go a long way in ensuring we’ve got the resources we need to attract new air service, update critical technology and infrastructure, and support the recreational economy here in Flathead County,” said Ratowski. “We’re lucky to have a partner in Senator Tester, who understands the need to invest in rural communities and lay the foundation for economic development well into the future.”

Tester also pushed to reauthorize the Essential Air Service program (EAS) to protect service in smaller communities across the state. Currently, Tester said, the program provides service to five eastern Montana communities including Glasgow, Glendive, Havre, Sidney, and Wolf Point, along with Butte and West Yellowstone.