The skies over Missoula grew a little more crowded on Thursday as American Airlines launched nonstop service to Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago, followed later in the day by United Airlines service to Los Angeles.

But it was the arrival of American shortly before noon that drew much of the fanfare, as airport officials greeted the inaugural flight with a water-canon salute and offered debarking passengers a swag bag and slice of cake.

“This is fabulous coming nonstop from Dallas to Missoula,” said passenger Thomas Taylor. “For years, I've been having to come through all these second stops. This makes Missoula so much closer. It makes it easier to come here much more often. It's going to put Missoula on the map.”

American Airlines announced in December that it planned to launch nonstop service from Missoula to both Dallas and Chicago. Airport officials and community partners had courted the service for years and worked to compile a revenue guarantee to help close the deal.

The effort received the backing of Missoula area businesses looking to reach a wider market, as well as Missoula Economic Partnership, which began pursuing expanded local air service five years ago.

“When we're dealing with business retention and expansion, when we're dealing with business attraction, air service always comes up as an issue,” said Jeff Fee, interim director at MEP. “The fact is, without affordable air service and without options, it's a hurdle.”

That hurdle was crossed on Thursday as the flight's first passengers stepped off the plane and a new load of passengers prepared to board the outbound flight. The American Airline ticket counter was up and running, bringing to six the number of carriers serving the city.

While opening the south-central market was lauded by area businesses, it's also a boon to tourism officials and leisure travelers. As the nation's largest airline, American offers more than 6,700 daily flights from 350 locations and 56 countries.

“What that means for this community is that folks from Missoula can travel to those locations that previously may not have been available,” said Shane Stack, chair of the Missoula County Airport Authority. “Additionally, all those folks in these other communities can come to Missoula and experience the wonderful culture we have here.”

Shane Stack, chairman of the Missoula County Airport Authority, left, and Cris Jensen, director of Missoula International Airport, praised the community effort that helped bring American Airlines to Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Shane Stack, chairman of the Missoula County Airport Authority, left, and Cris Jensen, director of Missoula International Airport, praised the community effort that helped bring American Airlines to Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Barb Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula, will lead a partnership to Dallas/Fort Worth later this month to promote the new service and the offerings of Missoula and western Montana.

The delegation, which includes Glacier Country tourism and Missoula International Airport, will meet with area businesses, Dallas-based media and meeting planners to market the flight.

“We want to let them know they can come to cool mountain air in a little more than three hours, and they can have breakfast in Dallas in lunch in Missoula,” said Neilan. “From the tourism end, we've recognized for a very long time how important it is to have easy access and direct flights into our area, especially western Montana.”

While the Dallas flight opens new destinations via the south-central market, seasonal service to Chicago on American will also compete directly with the flights now offered by United Airlines.

As local air service increases, ticket prices often fall. When American launched service from Bozeman to Dallas, the average cost of one-way fares dropped $22. The same held true in Missoula when Delta began competing with Alaska Airlines with service to Seattle.

After six months, one-way fares fell $15.

Billy Glunz, director of government affairs for American, said the airline was pleased with its performance in Montana. Along with Missoula, the carrier now serves Bozeman and Billings.

“The new service we're launching today from Missoula to Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth – two of our largest hubs – is a game changer,” Glunz said. “When we make decisions like this, they're big decisions that we make as a company. The partnerships we have, the local team here at the airport and the support we received is fantastic and it makes a big difference for us.”

American Airlines on Thursday also launched nonstop service from Dallas to Reykjavik, Iceland, and from Chicago to Venice, Italy. Passengers leaving to either hub from Missoula would arrive at their foreign destination the next morning.

It's that ease of service that has local boosters – and passengers – excited.

“American Airlines probably receives lots of proposals from airports all around the world asking them to provide service to their community,” said Stack. “The fact they've brought American Airlines service to Missoula is a wonderful thing and we're grateful as a community and as an airport.”