Construction of a new passenger terminal at Missoula International Airport received a welcome funding boost this week, landing $6.7 million from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Announced by Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and provided by the FAA's Airport Improvement Program, the funding will reduce the amount of debt incurred by the airport as it completes the first phase of its terminal project, valued at $67 million.

“What it really means is less debt for the project,” Airport Director Cris Jensen told the Missoula Current on Friday. “It gets us close to the goal of moving into the next phase of the project.”

Phase One is expected to open to the public in late 2021 or early the next year, offering new security screening, ticketing and five passenger gates. Airport officials have dubbed it the “South Paw” to distinguish it from the “East Paw,” which represents the project's next step and would add three to four additional gates, along with baggage claim.

But airport officials haven't set a timeline for the eastern concourse – a decision they're expected to make next month as funding for Phase One becomes firm.

Jensen said the $6.7 million awarded this week by the FAA could help advance Phase Two. The airport set a new passenger record last year of nearly 1 million passengers and is ill-equipped to handle today's passenger counts and technology.

“It was money we were hoping for but weren't counting on, so it improves our financial position all through the project,” Jensen said. “It would allow us to roll right into the next phase as soon as we finish this phase.”

A rendering of the new passenger terminal under construction at Missoula International Airport. (A&E Architects)
A rendering of the new passenger terminal under construction at Missoula International Airport. (A&E Architects)

Such projects could become harder to fund as the Trump administration plans to eliminate funding from the Airport Improvement Program entirely in its 2021 budget, according to Tester.

Tester and Daines have both lobbied on behalf of Montana's airports in the past and have helped secure AIP funding for the Missoula terminal project. Daines called the Missoula project a critical modernization.

“Finishing the new terminal at Missoula International Airport will create more jobs and ensure more tourist dollars coming in from visitors to Western Montana,” Daines said. “I’m pleased to see Missoula receive these critical resources needed to update and modernize our airport infrastructure.”

Tester also praised the funding and Missoula's long-needed new terminal.

“In Big Sky country, air travel is critical to supporting our booming tourism industry and keeping folks connected,” Tester said. “This grant is not only an investment in our transportation infrastructure, but also in our economy — making air travel in and out of Missoula safer, quicker, and more efficient.”

The funding announcement also included $1.2 million for apron work at the Missoula airport.

“When we started this (terminal) project, we had to remove some hangars and create additional parking space,” Jensen said. “We're replacing some of the ramp space we had to eliminate at the very beginning.”