Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) As the pandemic shook up the airline industry, it also did odd things to long-standing statistics, including the rankings of Montana's “busiest” airports.

Missoula Montana Airport officials on Tuesday said Bozeman remains the state's busiest airport – a ranking it has held now for several years. But Missoula, which often held the third spot, moved into the No. 2 position as Billings fell to fourth.

“Historically, five to eight years ago, we were always the number three airport in the state,” said airport director Brian Ellestad. “Now that business travel is coming back, we actually slid into the No. 2 spot for the first time in our history.”

Upward trends in Missoula

And 2022 wasn't a record-setting year for the Missoula airport, as the lingering effects of the pandemic held travel down in the early part of the year. But by the latter half of the year – and with a new terminal open – the airport saw a return to 2019 figures, which was a record year.

Ellestad expects those upward trends to continue in 2023 and possibly grow in 2024.

“We're still below 2019 record numbers, but last year we did have an 18% increase over 2021,” he said. “With the number of seats in our market, we'll probably budget the next fiscal year at 2019 numbers.”

According to the Montana Department of Transportation, more than 1.1 million passengers boarded a commercial airline in Bozeman, making it the state's busiest airport. It's also served by more carriers, including Jet Blue and Southwest, something no other airport in Montana has.

Missoula saw 425,000 passengers board a plane in 2022, according to MDT, making it the state's second busiest airport. Kalispell moved into the third spot and Billings slid to fourth with less than 385,000 enplanements.

Bozeman also held the top spot for the number of passengers arriving, with more than 1.1 million. Missoula was second with more than 419,000 arriving passengers. Again, Kalispell and Billings rounded out the top four.

“For us it was good to see,” said Ellestad.

Commercial Airlines

According to the state's year-end figures, Delta holds the largest share of the Montana market at more than 30%, followed by United at 27% and Alaska Airlines at 14%. American Airlines has grown its state presence and makes up nearly 10% of the share.

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All four airlines serve Missoula, and Ellestad and other airport officials plan to attend an aviation conference this month to meet with airlines in search of new service. They'll do so again in the summer.

While it's not likely Missoula will land new service this year with the second phase of the passenger terminal under construction, Ellestad believes next year could be one of growth and new additions to the city's route map.

“We have several air service meetings upcoming as we continue to lobby for additional service and more seats in our market,” he said.

In the past, the airport and its economic and tourism partners across the city compiled a revenue guarantee which they used to court new service. They found success when American Airlines began serving Missoula with daily nonstop service to Dallas/Fort Worth.

On Tuesday, the Missoula Airport Authority approved a memorandum of understanding with the Missoula Economic Partnership and signed a contract with Ailevon Pacific to conduct air service development.

The role had been carried out in house by airport staff, but the consultant may help find success in bringing new service to the city, particularly if the airport and its partners secure a Small Community Air Service Grant to sweeten the pot.

Airport officials said Southwest Airlines service to New York is one route that would be considered. Ailevon Pacific has a former Southwest employee on staff.

“It seemed prudent to seek out a consultant,” the airport said. “A consultant will be able to work with the community on the Small Community Air Service Grant and provide additional credibility.”

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