Missoula International Airport set a new passenger record in 2018 for the fifth straight year and has boosted its passenger count 85 percent since 2000, officials said Thursday.

With the numbers in, the airport handled nearly 850,000 passengers over 2018. That's up 76,000 passengers from the prior year and represents an increase of nearly 10 percent.

“We had a busy year,” airport director Cris Jensen said Thursday. “We all knew that, but this just confirms it.”

Back in 2000, the airport recorded 459,000 passengers, though that number has since doubled. The year-over-year growth has prompted the facility to begin construction on a new passenger terminal.

The current facility has grown obsolete and has reached the end of its useful life.

“It also has put us in a position where the facility is capping our future growth potential,” Jensen said. “We really don't have the ability to park more airplanes or bigger airplanes, or accommodate more customers. It proves we're at the end of this facility.”

The growth in passengers could help the airport land a larger federal grant than was budgeted for in the new terminal. Jensen said the entitlement grant is based entirely on passenger counts, and with the numbers growing, the funding should follow.

The new terminal is currently designed with eight new passenger gates, though it can be expanded to 20 as traffic grows in the future. The project is self-supported through airport revenues and federal grants.

“It's not a build it and they will come,” Jensen said. “They're already here and this is what we'll need today. If more show up tomorrow, our plan will easily accommodate it. We feel good with our design and the new facility should last for the foreseeable future.”

Jensen attributes the passenger growth to a number of factors, including new destinations, new airlines and larger airplanes. The economy has been healthy, he said, and the state has done a good job marketing Montana and Missoula as a destination.

Growth in the local business sector has also helped.

“That business growth is appearing too,” he said. “We see Cognizant coming in and buying out ATG, and ClassPass and all the other activity that's happening. That all adds to the travel into and out of our city.”

For the next two years, passengers will have to deal with the old facility as the new terminal undergoes construction. Security was relocated last month and deconstruction is set to begin in February.

Phase 1 construction will take several years.

“I'd expect in early February you'd start to see the deconstruction process happen,” Jensen said. “We're making preparations to build a construction wall that will separate the operations terminal from the deconstruction area, or the west wing of the building.”

Several airlines have advanced their seasonal schedules:

  • Frontier Airlines begins service to Denver on March 22
  • Allegiant Airlines begins service to Oakland on May 16, and Los Angeles on June 7
  • American Airlines service to Chicago begins on June 6
  • United Airlines begins service to Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco on June 6
  • Delta Airlines begins service to Atlanta on June 9 and Saturday service to Los Angeles on June 8
  • Flights to 13 nonstop destinations continue year-round