New routes served from Missoula International Airport coupled with larger planes has left airport officials scrambling to accommodate the increase in passengers, and eager to begin construction of a new terminal.

This week, the Missoula County Airport Authority took a step in that direction by awarding a $14,000 contract to design the foundation system for a new facility. While a new terminal won't be in place until 2021, airport officials said the process, at least, is underway.

“This is really the beginning of it all,” said Steve Martel of Martel Construction. “At the end of July, we'll have the foundation package ready to put to the marketplace. Within a month, Geotech Foundation Systems will have their design completed with Morrison-Maierle.”

Given the clay soils beneath the airfield, engineers have chosen Rammed Aggregate Piers to support the terminal's foundation system. That's done by drilling holes 16 feet below the foundation's lowest grade and filling them with aggregate.

Airport officials earlier this year moved to expedite their plans to begin the new terminal, citing funding included in the federal spending bill passed by Congress in March. With funding available, the airport is working to compile bid packages for FAA consideration.

“We want to create some packages, some shovel-ready units of work the FAA can fund with discretionary money,” said airport director Cris Jensen. “This is starting down that path.”

The number of destination served from Missoula has grown exponentially in recent years, including flights to Los Angeles and Dallas.
The number of destination served from Missoula has grown exponentially in recent years, including flights to Los Angeles and Dallas.

Work on the new terminal can't come soon enough, Jensen said. The airport has seen an increase in passengers each of the past several years, setting a record with 772,000 passengers just last year. That marked a 2 percent increase over 2016 and a 68 percent increase since 2000.

But the terminal, cobbled together over a period of decades, wasn't designed to handle so many people and so many aircraft. Four years ago, the airport opened a deck to accommodate spillover crowds in the boarding area. Just last month, it added a third TSA check station to shorten lines at security.

Jensen said the facility is running out of options.

“For the first time, this summer we're seeing our terminal building not able to accommodate the needs of our air carriers and our traveling public,” Jensen said. “Every morning at 10 a.m., we play the game of where to park airplanes. It has become a bigger and bigger challenge to accommodate everyone, especially during the midday and evening banks.”

Jensen said the challenges are compounded when aircraft arrive early or late, or when a jet bridge breaks down. Even on Tuesday, aircraft were stacked on the tarmac waiting for a gate at the terminal.

While it's not a bad problem to have and is indicative of a growing city with more travel options, Jensen said that until the terminal comes online, there aren't any easy solutions.

“One thing we're hoping to do is acquire another boarding ramp so we can board and deplane aircraft in remote locations,” Jensen said. “We're happy that our biggest challenge is too many airplanes, too many cars and too many people, but we're definitely looking forward to the new terminal.”

An artist's rendering of the new terminal.
An artist's rendering of the new terminal.

As part of that process, the Missoula County Airport Authority also approved a $10,000 contract with Martel Construction to conduct asbestos testing in areas slated for the first round of demolition. That includes the current TSA screening area and the westernmost portion of the lobby.

TSA is expected to move to the center of the building in August.

“Areas of the building are at the age that asbestos-laden products were likely used,” Jensen said. “Before we can do any of the deconstruction that we're planning here in the near future, we need to go through the building and do a full asbestos survey.”

Martel said demolition work can't begin without the report. If asbestos does turns up, work will take place to abate it.

“This proposal covers the checkpoint building (TSA) and that portion of the lobby, which we'd demo, and also the portion of the lobby where we do the TSA relocation,” Martel said. “We have to be able to check that box for the demolition permit.”

Martel said the asbestos testing will take place next month. The airport will also award the bid for construction of a new terminal access road, so long as the bids are competitive. The demolition and foundation packages will be let in August.

As the work gears up, Jensen said, passenger growth will likely continue. American Airlines launched service from Missoula earlier this month to Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago, and both flights are performing well.

Both Delta and United Airlines have also moved to larger planes, including United's flight to Denver. The seasonal flight from Missoula to San Francisco also has been extended deeper into the year.

“In the past, it pretty much ended around Labor Day, and now it's into October,” Jensen said. “That was a change that was unexpected and certainly something we were happy to see.”