Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While the pandemic kept a lid on air travel in early 2022, Missoula Montana Airport saw a sharp increase in passengers during the fall, and it expects 2023 to be a record year.

Portions of the Phase 2 terminal project also should open in time for the busy 2024 summer travel season. But for now, with Phase 1 complete, the airport likes where it's at heading as 2023 unfolds.

Airport Director Brian Ellestad said year-end passenger numbers should be available next week. As it stands, September through November provided record numbers, surpassing those recorded in 2019 before the pandemic.

Winter weather likely suppressed some of December's figures due to icing, snow and fog.

“We had three months in a row that all exceeded 2019 records. And we were very close to a record holiday period,” Ellstad said.

The airport is moving ever closer to hitting the milestone of 1 million passengers. Around 900,000 passengers moved through the facility in 2019, and the airport expects to exceed that this year.

That's largely due to the larger mainline aircraft that now serve Missoula. A number of airlines also have restored routes once paused during the pandemic.

“We'll have larger and more aircraft as we get into summer flights,” Ellstad said. “American is bringing back Chicago during the summer. United has bigger aircraft coming in from Denver and Chicago. We do believe 2023 will exceed 2019, that full year.”

The old baggage claim has been moved into the new passenger terminal, though it will move again next year when Phase 2 progresses. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
The old baggage claim has been moved into the new passenger terminal, which has since been razed. Baggage claim will move again next year when Phase 2 progresses. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Exactly when the airport reaches 1 million passengers may depend upon the airlines and how they navigate the challenges they're facing. Ellestad said a pilot shortage could keep a lid on growth from Missoula, at least until the issue is resolved.

Once it is, Missoula could hit the 1 million-milestone in 2024.

“The (airlines) are still battling some pilot shortages, but I think 2024 will be more of a growth mode for us,” Ellestad said. “That times out well with the second half of the terminal. It'll be time for us to grow.”

The airport opened its $67 million Phase 1 terminal last year and the Missoula County Airport Authority voted to move forward with the next two phases of the project.

The old terminal is now gone and baggage claim has been temporarily installed in the new Phase 1 facility. It will eventually move into the new second phase, which should see the front half open to operations next summer.

The back end of Phase 2, including the passenger gates, are expected to open in 2025.

“Right now, baggage claim is tight. It's not ideal, but it works,” Ellestad said. “But Phase 1, as far as having four jet bridges, works and is great. We also have a fifth gate to handle multiple ground board options if we have to.”

Also this year, Ellestad said the airport will begin to dive into its new master plan.

“We're looking at the next 20-plus years, looking at the airfield and our property. We have small working groups going on right now. We'll have community meetings at some point in the future. It's an 18-month process so we're still in the early phases.”