Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With the first phase of the new passenger terminal open, Missoula Montana Airport logged two straight months with record passenger numbers, exceeding the years prior to the pandemic.

Airport Director Brian Ellestad on Tuesday said September and October surpassed figures logged back in 2019, which was a record-setting year for the airport. The pandemic soon drove those numbers down, but the passenger count is now at an all-time high.

Ellestad said nearly 40,000 passengers departed from Missoula's airport in September and October, marking a 3% increase from 2019. While he doesn't anticipate November and December to be as high, travel is trending in the right direction, and airplanes are leaving Missoula nearly full.

“Our loads factors continue to be outstanding,” Ellestad said. “They're around 90% on average.”

Airlines are currently finalizing their summer schedule and Ellestad said Missoula will see a 10% increase in the number of available seats in the first quarter of 2023 when compared to last year.

In the second quarter, when Missoula's busiest flight season kicks off, the airport will see a 19% increase in seats. The growth is largely due to the use of mainline aircraft brought in by United and American airlines.

“We've been able to sustain mainline service in our market – we actually have more seats in our market,” Ellestad said. “We've moved very quickly from the 50- to 76-seat regional airplanes all the way up to 150 seats and 160-plus.”

Early scheduling suggests that American will bring back its Missoula to Chicago flight next year, along with service to Las Angeles and two daily flights to Dallas.

Ellestad said United also has reloaded its Chicago flight, and will do so on a mainline aircraft when compared to the old regional jets.

“Allegiant is bringing back Orange County California for a couple of operations over the Thanksgiving Holiday and again over the Christmas holiday,” Ellestad said. “We expect it to be back to bi-weekly full-time starting in January.”

Ellestad added that Destination Missoula and the Missoula Economic Partnership will consider applying for another small community air service grant. Timing will be key, and the Tourism Business Improvement District has been saving for the cause.

Such grants can be used to court new airline service and expanded routes.

“Maybe it's not this year, but maybe next year that pot will be big enough where we'll be applying,” Ellestad said.