By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Within the next few years, passengers flying from Missoula International Airport may enjoy the amenities found at larger facilities, like a restaurant waiting behind security, more seating at the gates and accommodations for larger jets.
With that $42 million vision now in reach, Missoula International Airport is working to hire a consulting team to begin planning the future. Options range from a major renovation of the existing terminal to building new.
In either scenario, airport director Cris Jensen said, the customer experience is sure to improve.
“The first step in our process was to hire a consulting team, and we’re going through that right now,” said Jensen. “Once we get them on board, we’ll revisit the terminal area master plan.”
The Missoula County Airport Authority adopted the current master plan in 2008, though much has changed over the last eight years. Enplanements have increased from 283,000 in 2008 to 350,000 last year.
The growth in passengers set another record for the airport, but space is growing limited as a result. With larger jets serving the city, more competitive fares and expanded services, Jensen believes the numbers will continue to increase.
“We’re filling a higher percentage of our seats,” Jensen said. “Given the trends, when we see an increase in available seats, we expect to see an increase in passengers.”
With growth in mind, the airport is looking to launch a $42 million terminal project within the next few years. The 2008 master plan presented three terminal concepts, including a lofty midfield project and a vision for two concourses.
While all concepts remain on the table, Jensen said, renovating the currently facility presents its own options. The terminal has been expanded incrementally over the past 50 years, and most of that took place before security changed after 9/11.
“Our terminal is more than big enough, but it’s big in all the wrong places,” Jensen said. “It’s completely possible that the new terminal would be smaller over all, but better laid out and more intuitive for customers.”
Jensen believes the customer experience could be improved upon in a number of areas. The explosive detection units take up too much space, he said, and the ticket counters are too small.
With airlines serving the city with larger jets, he added, crowding at the gates has become an issue. The gates were designed for smaller aircraft and fewer passengers.
“It’s standing room only, and we need to improve some of the amenities, like power and more concessions,” Jensen said. “While we have a restaurant today (Jedediah’s), it’s a function of a terminal that was designed prior to 9/11. The new layout would have a restaurant available to passengers post-security.”
Jensen also expects the project to make improvements to the ramp. The airport currently has three jet-bridges with room to park four planes. But on busy summer days, the planes stack up on the ramp waiting for room to park.
“We’re getting tight on space and we tend to fill up,” Jensen said. “We’d like to have a minimum of eight spots for jets, and that’s designed so we can expand. In the beginning, it’ll be four jet bridges serving two parking positions. Those are details to be worked out and designed.”
Jensen said the project’s $42 million budget could be covered without raising taxes and passenger fees. The project could be paid in part through facility charges, grants and other revue from the Transportation Security Administration.
He said a funding model would be included with the larger terminal plan. The airport expects to have direction later this year once consultants detail the options.
“We’ve been working for some time to put ourselves in a position of having no debt,” Jensen said. “We have a detailed financial plan and we’ll revisit that one more time.”