Regional fires and the air tankers used to fight them have driven traffic at Missoula International Airport to record highs, marking one of the airport’s busiest seasons in recent memory.
Construction of a new Federal Express shipping facility also continues the airport’s growth, which nets additional revenue from both leases and fuel.
Cris Jensen, director of Missoula’s airport, said the summer fire activity, while detrimental to the region, is having a positive impact on the airport’s budget. The airfield receives landing fees from tanker aircraft, as well as a percentage from fuel flowage.
“They also go toward our operational count, so they help justify our air traffic control tower,” Jensen said. “In my 12 years now, this is the busiest season I have ever seen related to firefighting activity and air tanker activity. Talking to others who have been here longer, they’re saying the same thing.”
Going into the season, Jensen said, the airport chose a conservative number related to landing fees generated by firefighting aircraft. The number included in this year’s budget was less than $20,000.
Jensen said the figure changes greatly from year to year and is hard to pin down until the season is over. Officials don’t expect the fire season to end until October.
“Based on the level of activity we have witnessed to date, the revenue will be far greater than our budget number,” Jensen said.
“In addition, the fires will likely increase our fuel flowage revenue and our our rental-car revenue,” he added. “What few available seats we have on board commercial aircraft are being taken by firefighters, meaning our load factors will be very high as well.”
A number of hangar projects are also planned for the west general aviation area, a positive sign, Jensen said, since much of the hangar development has taken place on the east side of the airport.
It’s there where Federal Express has broken ground on a new parcel facility. The 47,000-square-foot center will help the company process parcels shipped from Missoula by air.
“That project is well underway and we’re very happy about it,” Jensen said. “One, they lease ground from the airport and that’s revenue to us. They’re also operational aircraft, so there’s landing fees involved and fuel flowage. They pay 5 cents per gallon that we collect, and it has a positive financial impact.”
Commercial airline activity is also strong, Jensen said, with the airport on track to log a record number of passengers over a 12-month period. As it stands, he said, enplanements are approaching 390,000.
“This is a very positive trend considering that the available seats compared to last year is relatively flat,” Jensen said. “Our load factors have gone up and, in fact, we have the highest load factor of any airport in the state at nearly 85 percent.”