Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With a new airline locked into nonstop flights to Minneapolis next summer, Missoula Montana Airport is looking beyond its existing routes in hopes of expanding service.

Earlier this month, Sun Country Airlines announced plans to begin providing nonstop service to Minneapolis twice a week. Delta Airlines also flies the route on a daily basis and has lowered its fares in light of the new competition.

“We have seen Delta airfares drop to Minneapolis since the route announcement,” said airport director Brian Ellestad. “Sun County fares are listed one way in the range of $79 to $129, depending on day of travel.”

Airport officials this month met with 10 different airlines and 14 airline route planners, including Sun Country. The meetings could result in new service or larger aircraft, effectively increasing the number of seats in the Missoula market, Ellestad said.

Some of that growth could come through Sun Country.

“Our hope is that it does what we expect – that next year we grow that service with additional frequencies,” Ellestad said. “Other expected growth, we expect some additional up-sizing of aircraft from 76-seat regional jets to mainline, 150-plus seat aircraft this upcoming summer.”

Airlines serving Missoula already have much of the West covered with flights to California, Oregon and Seattle, along with Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. Airlines also provide service to Minnesota, Illinois and Texas, and airport officials in the past have expressed interest in gaining service to the East Coast.

In the past, landing new routes, such as American Airline's daily flight to Dallas/Fort Worth, resulted from a revenue guarantee provided by the Missoula business community. The airport could take a similar approach soon.

“We plan on hosting a community event in our board room to go over the importance of air service and how the community can apply for the Department of Transportation's Small Community Development Grant,” said Ellestad. “There's lots of options on how to best utilize that program.”

With growth in mind, the airport is pushing forward with Phase II of the passenger terminal. It's set to open early in 2025. Once finished, it will provide two more jet bridges, two ground boarding spots and a permanent baggage claim.

The airport hasn't decided yet when to begin Phase III, which would add additional jet boarding and parking spots.

“We recently submitted for another grant so that we can hopefully move that project forward,” Ellestad said. “There is $1 billion available nationwide that we're competing for. What we know is that 634 applications were submitted for $7.7 billion of work nationwide. We have been told that we always submit a very strong grant application, so we should know more in February if we're successful.”