By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

The Missoula Economic Partnership detailed its goals to improve local air service on Wednesday, saying increased competition would drive down fares for leisure travelers and help local businesses compete on a larger stage.

James Grunke, president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership, said his organization and the Missoula Airport Authority continue to chip away at building a long-term pool of funding to serve as a revenue guarantee to entice new airlines into the market.

“To be successful in driving down costs for the business traveler, you have to increase leisure travel,” said Grunke. “You need more seats in the market and increased competition, and the only way you get an airline to come into your community is through a revenue guarantee.”

The effort looks to raise $300,000 a year by selling incentive packages offered up by local businesses. Grunke said the task force behind the effort is negotiating with a vendor to take over the program, though the targeted airlines haven't changed.

Among them, the task force continues to work with American Airlines in an effort to land nonstop service to Dallas/Forth Worth. The airline has commenced the route from Bozeman and is gearing up in Billings, leaving Grunke hopeful that Missoula will be next in line.

“We're particularly interested in American because we need competition in the market,” Grunke said. “They were successful in Bozeman and they're starting service in Billings. We expect in June 2018 that Missoula to Dallas service will start.”

The local task force secured a $600,000 federal grant and still has $300,000 raised by local businesses. Combined with in-kind services provided by Missoula International Airport, the city has roughly $1.2 million to guarantee the route's success, though Grunke said it's not certain all of that will be needed.

Grunke said the task force is also interested in getting Frontier Airlines to continue its route to Denver on a year-round bases. The airline currently discontinues its Missoula service in the winter.

“We know that when Frontier leaves the market on January 3 and comes back in April, on January 4 airfares go up around 25 percent,” Grunke said. “It's the absence of that competition. We're going to negotiate with them to keep them in the market.”

Back in February, airport officials also announced their intention to target Alaska Airlines for service to Boise. Grunke confirmed that effort on Wednesday, saying that while Boise wasn't the preferred destination, the route would open up service to a number of other cities currently served by Alaska.

“That gives us a competing flight to Salt Lake, Reno, San Diego, Sacramento and San Jose,” said Grunke. “If we can compete with Delta with an Alaska leg, that will increase competition.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at