Missoula airport hoping to capitalize off Alaska-Virgin airlines merger

By Martin Kidston

An approved merger between Alaska Air Group and Virgin America could give Missoula International Airport an opportunity to pursue expanded air service on the local carrier, though such conversations are likely a ways away.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice approved Alaska Air’s $4 billion purchase of Virgin. Alaska, which provides nonstop service from both Portland and Seattle to Missoula, pursued the deal to better compete against Delta Air Lines.

Delta also serves Missoula with flights to Salt Lake City and Minneapolis.

“We’ve had conversations amongst ourselves that the merger might be a way to gain some service to California,” said Cris Jensen, airport director. “It might lead to the merged airline being open to the idea that Missoula to San Franscisco is possible. It’s way too early at this point to expect them to talk to us about that, but it would be one of our strategies going forward with California.”

According to the Seattle Times, Alaska took in $5.6 billion in revenue last year, carrying 32 million passengers on a fleet of Boeing 737 jets, plus 71 smaller regional airplanes. In contrast, Virgin had 2015 revenue of $1.4 billion from 7 million passengers flown on a fleet of Airbus A320 jets.

The approved merger creates the nation’s fifth largest airline, and while it’s early in the game, Jensen said it could have benefits for markets like Missoula.

“We would never have had a chance of getting Virgin to fly to Missoula, but because we already have Alaska in the market, it gives us an opportunity to have that conversation,” Jensen said. “I suspect it will take them time to get to that point. I expect Alaska will focus on existing Virgin markets.”

Virgin, a small carrier, currently services a number of cities, including Austin, Texas, Washington, D.C., Boston and New York. It serves much of California, along with Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Its international stops include Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun.

“There’s not a lot of redundancy in the route structure of the two airlines, and I think that was one of the benefits of this merger,” Jensen said. “It expands Alaska’s reach. It’ll open up travel opportunity to customers and frequent fliers on Alaska.”

Jensen said the airport continues to work with American Airlines in hopes of enticing the carrier to Missoula with service to Dallas/Fort Worth.

The airport has compiled a revenue guarantee to apply for expanded air service, and talks with American Airlines have been positive, Jensen said.

“It’s too soon to know what they’re going to do, but we hope to know something this month,” he said.

Jensen said air service development is a long and steady path, noting that it took the city five years to bring Frontier Airlines to Missoula. The revenue guarantee, which includes a federal grant, is good for three years.

“United is also interested in Missoula with service to Houston,” Jensen said. “It’s possible they could take advantage of the revenue guarantee.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com