Missoula airport sets new passenger record, gears up for service to Dallas and LA

United Airlines will join Allegient in offering seasonal nonstop service from Missoula to Los Angeles this summer, just as American Airlines gears up for daily service to Dallas. The added flights are expected to continue growing Missoula’s passenger numbers. (United Airlines photo)

Driven by larger planes and additional flights, passenger traffic at Missoula International Airport set a new record in 2017, with nearly three-quarters of a million passengers flying through the Garden City.

The increase, fueled in part by growth across the greater Missoula area, comes as the airport ramps up for a multi-year project to redevelop its dated passenger terminal, adding more gates to better accommodate the increase in travelers and flights.

“The growth is really just the economy in Missoula, and people seem to have found Montana with a lot of tourism,” said Brian Ellestad, the airport’s deputy director. “This year looks really good going forward.”

Passenger numbers in 2017 set an all-time record at the airport for the fourth consecutive year. It handled more than 772,000 passengers, marking a 2-percent increase over 2016.

Since 2000, the airport has seen a 68-percent increase in passengers. This year, Ellestad said, the number of passengers could increase another 5 to 7 percent over last year’s record numbers.

“With American Airlines and the traffic that brings, we should be well over 2 percent growth next year, and maybe more,” Ellestad said.

Late last year, American Airlines announced its plans to launch nonstop daily service from Missoula to Dallas/Fort Worth, and seasonal service from Missoula to Chicago. Around the same time, United Airlines announced its plans to launch seasonal nonstop service from Missoula to Los Angeles.

This week, it was also suggested that Missoula airport officials are courting year-round service to California.

“We meet with all the airlines and we have our wish list,” Ellestad said. “California is one of our top requests. We have summer daily flights to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Our goal is to convert those to year-round.”

The increase in air service and passengers comes as the airport gears up to begin a multi-phase expansion of its passenger terminal. That project is expected to begin later this year with the relocation of the security check points.

That will clear the way for the first phase of demolition and the construction of a five-gate concourse. The second phase will raze the existing lobby and add several additional gates in a separate concourse, as well as a larger baggage claim.

The growth in passengers helps the airport net more federal funding, Ellestad said.

“There’s a formula for grants,” he said. “The more passengers that come through the doors, the more FAA grants we get. We’re self-sufficient and self-funded, so as our parking goes up and the concessionaires do better, it helps us put more money toward the terminal project.”

Frontier Airlines will resume nonstop service to Denver on May 2, and Allegiant Airlines will restart service to Los Angeles on May 17 and Oakland on May 18.

American Airlines will start service from Missoula to Dallas and Chicago on June 7. The same day, United Airlines will start service to Los Angeles and resume flights to San Francisco.

In the process, United will switch to larger mainline aircraft to Denver on two daily departures this summer. Delta’s seasonal service to Atlanta will also restart on June 10th.