By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

The Missoula International Airport set a new passenger record for the third straight year in 2016, surpassing the previous record by nearly 9 percent, airport officials announced on Thursday.

The surge in passengers comes as the airport moves forward with plans to construct a new terminal – a process that's expected to begin next year. It's also courting American Airlines to launch nonstop service to Dallas/Fort Worth.

Airport Director Cris Jensen on Thursday said MSO handled more than 758,000 passengers last year. That's an increase of 8.6 percent over 2015, or nearly 60,000 additional passengers.

“The continued growth of passengers into and out of the Missoula International Airport is a reflection of the positive economic health and growth of tourism in the Greater Missoula Area,” said Jensen. “It has also brought us to the realization that we need to update our terminal facility to better service our passengers.”

After months of planning discussions, the Missoula County Airport Authority in October approved an update to the Terminal Area Master Plan, clearing the way for engineers to design a modern facility.

As envisioned, the plan includes a terminal offering eight gates designed to accommodate larger jets and more passengers. The project will unfold in phases over several years, starting with the demolition of the airport’s western wing.

The project is expected to begin next year.

“We have begun the design of a new passenger terminal that will satisfy the needs of the flying public well into the future,” Jensen said.

Over the past 20 years, the airport has experienced a 98-percent increase in passenger traffic. Back in 1996, the airport handled roughly 383,000 passengers.

The airport now offers nonstop service to 12 destinations served by five airlines. The airport continues to court American Airlines in hopes of enticing the carrier to Missoula with service to Dallas/Fort Worth.

“We always continue to work to get new routes and try to get the smaller regional jets upgraded to mainline service,” said Brian Ellestad, the airport's deputy director. “That's what a lot of our work is, getting a better passenger experience for our customers.”

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