Missoula International Airport will share $74 million in federal funding earmarked for Montana airports as they struggle to overcome an operational deficit resulting from a drop in passengers due to the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced the funding Tuesday, followed by Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines. Missoula will receive $5.6 million in funding, and the timing is key.

“It keeps us moving forward with the terminal project and keeps our staff intact, but what would be a better thing is for airlines and passengers to return to so our rental car companies and concessionaires are all seeing customers,” said airport director Cris Jensen.

“This certainly helps and we're grateful for the support and the funding, but more than anything, we'd like to get back to something that looks more like normal.”

More than 70 airports across the state will share the funding, though Billings International Airport will receive the largest share at $17 million, followed by Bozeman at $15.4 million. The airport in Kalispell will receive $11.5 million.

The funding is part of the CAREs Act passed last month by Congress.

The Missoula airport saw its passengers numbers begin to decline in mid-March as the pandemic began to spread. As various closures and other measures were set in place later that month and in early April, airlines began to cut back on service due to a significant drop in demand.

“We're looking at 50 to 75 passengers a day right now when we should be at 2,400,” said Jensen. “We're seeing maybe 5% of what's normal. We've gone back and slashed our budgets pretty dramatically.”

Cuts in commercial traffic and passengers have chewed into airport revenues, and at a critical time in Missoula. The airport last year began Phase 1 construction of its new passenger terminal, and it's set to begin drafting its new Fiscal Year budget.

Jensen said the emergency funding appropriated by Congress will help for the time being.

“It'll get us through for a while, but part of the challenge is how best to use those funds,” he said. “We're focused largely on the terminal project, but we're trying to formulate the smartest plan we can to maximize those funds to operationally keep the airport safe and efficient, and at the same time, keep the project going forward.”

Tester said airports across the state are facing new demands on operations and uncertainties about their ability to pay down debt or complete projects. Some also have expressed doubt about their ability to retain staff while facing pressure to reduce costs.

“Montanans rely on our small regional airports to connect our state to the rest of the country, and the COVID-19 pandemic has shut them down almost entirely,” Tester said. “I’m glad to have helped secure this funding at a critical time — it’ll help local airports across the Treasure State keep up with their day-to-day operations so that when this crisis is over, they can continue serving their communities and driving our economy.”

Daines offered a statement as well.

“The Coronavirus pandemic has significantly impacted our Montana airports which are vital to our economy and communities,” Daines said. ”This funding is critical for Montana airports to help stay afloat and keep workers employed during the coronavirus pandemic.”