Aviation business booming at Missoula airport

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FedEx plans to build a new aviation facility at Missoula International Airport to consolidate its local shipping operation. It’s just one of several projects unfolding on the airport’s east end. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

An aircraft bearing the logo for a FedEx cargo flight sat waiting to take on freight at Missoula International Airport early Tuesday, just as Alpine Air arrived to unload its own payload of packages.

Nearby, Neptune Aviation conducted maintenance on two heavy air tankers while the concrete footings for a new aircraft hangar dried in the morning sun.

The bustle of activity playing out on the airport’s distant east end – well beyond the view of passengers waiting for their morning flight at the commercial air terminal – marks a welcome uptick in Missoula’s aviation business.

While commercial air service gets most of the attention with its growing list of nonstop service, the airport has placed an increased focus on general aviation in an effort to diversify its revenue stream, and business is on the upswing.

“We’re seeing a lot of activity related to general aviation in terms of hangar construction,” airport director Cris Jensen said. “They provide services to our users and revenue to the airport. It helps us diversify the revenue stream, so we’re always happy to see them grow and do well.”

Kynan Spethman, general manager for Northstar Jet and Kevin Condit, marketing manager for Neptune Aviation, noted the work in progress across the airport’s east end.

It includes a 23,000 square-foot hangar to house general aviation aircraft, a new hangar complex for Homestead Helicopters, and a new facility for FedEx. A new aviation ramp linking the business operations to the main airfield will also begin this year.

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Neptune Aviation, which secured several new contracts last year, continues to grow at its Missoula base. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

“FedEx is looking to relocate here in Missoula,” said Spethman. “They currently have a facility over on Expressway for all the packaging and sorting, but they want to consolidate that into an airfield operation to reduce truck transfers and double handling.”

While FedEx prepares to break ground on its project, Neptune remains the most visible tenant housed at the airport’s east end, and it’s also in a phase of growth. Last year, the company landed several new contracts with the U.S. Forest Service as part of that agency’s next generation firefighting program.

Neptune also forged an agreement to transform several surplus military planes for smokejumper and cargo use. The company, which includes Northstar, employs 240 people in Montana and New Mexico, with roughly 200 of them based in Missoula, according to Condit.

“On the Neptune side, we’re looking into our crystal ball, but it’s too early to say what the next building or structure will be,” said Condit. “Suffice it to say that Neptune is growing by leaps and bounds. There will be more facilities under way in the future for us as well.”

Neptune’s current project includes the new 23,000 square-foot hangar just east of company’s base of operations. The $2 million facility will enable the business to move general aviation aircraft now stored in Hangar 6 to the new Hangar 7.

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Neptune Aviation and Northstar Jet are constructing a new $2 million hangar on the airport’s east end to accommodate more general aviation aircraft. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

Doing so, Spethman said, will open up space for other uses. The project will be completed this year.

“Hangar 6 is full of general aviation customers, and if we can move some of them into the new Hangar 7, that will open up more room for heavy maintenance on heavy airtankers, or other needs we may have,” said Spethman. “There will certainty be some juggling and adjustments within the company.”

Homestead and FedEx are planning their own projects just down the row of hangars. Northwest MedStar, formerly operated as Life Flight, has secured a lease option for another piece of property within the airport’s aviation subdivision, though it has yet to announce a project.

“As a community, you’ve got to grow the airport,” Spethman said. “As the city grows, the airport has to grow with it. There’s a lot of demand for additional services. We felt it and we need to be in front of it. It’s definitely here.”

Last year, the airport received roughly $1 million in Tax Increment Financing to expand general aviation services on the airport’s east end. Jensen placed the airport’s cost to complete the upgrades at $2 million; work that includes the new apron and the infrastructure that goes with it.

Jensen told Missoula County commissioners last year the investment ways paying off by attracting new tenants and diversifying the airport’s revenue. As it currently stands, he said, commercial air service accounts for roughly 30 percent of the airport’s revenue. Parking fees contribute 23 percent, car rentals 15 percent and general aviation around 10 percent.

“We’ve been talking a lot about commercial aviation for awhile and how that’s growing, and pushing the need for a new passenger terminal,” Jensen said. “But general aviation is just as important to us.”

Jensen said the growth in general aviation is moving faster than anticipated.

“We had a 10 year plan to fill that space, and we’ll essentially be full this year,” he said. “There are other locations we can accommodate growth as well. We’re always looking for other types of opportunities.”

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General aviation aircraft fill up Hangar 6 at Missoula International Airport, though additional space will be provided by the opening of Hangar 7. (Photo by Martin Kidston)