Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Travel at Missoula Montana Airport returned to normal in 2023, surpassing the airport's previous record set before the pandemic.

With the year-end numbers in, airport director Brian Ellestad said the state's second busiest airport surpassed its 2019 record by 1% with nearly 913,200 passengers.

“It was a 9% increase over last year and a 1% increase over our previous record,” Ellestad said. “Based on available seats in 2024, we hopefully should set another record this year.”

The increase in passengers coincides with what Ellestad described as a split market, with no single airline leading the way. As it stands, United Airlines ended the year with 30.2% of the Missoula market, just ahead of Delta, which held 29% of the market.

Alaska Airlines held 16.9% of the market, American 13% and Allegiant 10.5%. Sun Country Airlines will enter the market this summer with nonstop flights to Minneapolis.

“We ended the year with a very healthy airline market-share split without a dominating airline,” Ellestad said. “United has slightly overtaken Delta as our market-share leader.”

Some of those figures will change in 2024, with Alaska Airlines leading the way in market growth. Ellestad said the carrier will restore daily nonstop service to Portland in March and will upgrade its midday flight to Seattle to a larger 737 aircraft.

“Overall, we're showing a 7% increase in April seats among all carriers,” Ellestad said. “In May, with several seasonal routes starting earlier this year, that number is slightly over 20%, so we're expecting record passengers this summer.”

A rendering of the Missoula airport after both Phase 1 and 2 of construction is fnished.
A rendering of the Missoula airport after both Phase 1 and 2 of construction is finished.

Deputy airport director Tim Damrow also sees future growth as airlines continue to show interest in Missoula.

“Airlines are taking notice of our market’s performance and are continuing to add and expand service into Missoula.” said Damrow. “We hope this added capacity next summer will help continue to drive down airfares and increase travel options for our community.”

Except during the pandemic, the airport has generally increased its passenger count each year for the past decade, or more than 100% over the last 20 years. The growth played a role in the airport's push to build a new and modern passenger terminal.

The first and largest phase of that project opened in early 2022 at $67 million. Shortly after, the Missoula County Airport Authority voted to begin work on the second phase, estimated at around $42 million.

The project will bring the airport's total number of gates to eight, which is enough to accommodate the current level of service. Construction will continue this year with a Phase 2 opening expected in early 2025.

“Steel framing has continued to progress with a goal to get the building dried in later in February,” Ellestad said. “Once the steel building is weather-proofed, things should move along much more quickly.”