Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Sun Country Airlines made its debut flight into Missoula on Wednesday, leaving Minneapolis and arriving before noon at the new terminal.

The airline enters the Missoula market as passenger counts are on the rise and the demand for expanded service grows. It's expected that 2024 will be another record year of growth at Missoula Montana Airport.

“The month of May ended with an increase of 21.9% more passengers as compared to last May,” said airport director Brian Ellestad. “We're expecting strong double digit increases in June.”

June's numbers will be padded by Frontier Airline's return to the market with service to both Phoenix and Denver. Allegiant also relaunched service to both Oakland and Orange County, California.

United Airlines is also driving passenger growth with service to San Francisco and Chicago, along with a fourth daily flight to Denver. American Airlines has added a second daily flight to Dallas and restarted service to Los Angeles and Chicago.

Missoula was a fitting destination for Sun County to expand, said Colton Snow, the carrier's chief marketing officer. The carrier will compete with Delta, which also serves Minneapolis.

“Montana is a very popular state with Minnesotans,” said Snow. “With no shortage of outdoor recreation, including hiking, biking, or rafting, Missoula is an ideal spot for a summer vacation.”

As the airport breaks ground on the third phase of its terminal project and wraps up the second phase, it will also submit an application for funding from the Small Community Air Service Grant. Funding the program can be used to grow local air service.

That push is being led by Destination Missoula, the Missoula Economic Partnership and local business advocates, including David Bell, president and CEO of the ALPS Corp. The grant, coupled with past fundraising efforts, helped bring American Airlines to the market with nonstop service to Dallas.

Grant Kier, CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership, said the new fundraising effort has brought in around $150,000 thus far. He believes partners behind the grant effort will apply this summer.

“The application will really target trying to get expanded routes to the East Coast,” Kier said. “If we do deploy this, it will be really focused on trying to achieve our targeted goal of more convenient, cheaper and more frequent access to the eastern seaboard.”