Daines tours Missoula airport as $111M terminal project kicks off

Sen. Steve Daines, center, talks with Missoula International Airport Director Chris Jensen, right, and Shawn Shea, vice president of Morrison-Maierle, left, during a tour of the facility on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

With demolition under way, Sen. Steve Daines on Tuesday toured Missoula International Airport and heard plans for a new $111 million passenger terminal, the first half of which will open in the fall of 2021.

The airport set a new passenger record for the fifth straight year in 2018 and has outgrown its current terminal.

“The original terminal was built here in 1948 and over the years has had 11 major renovations,” said Tim Damrow, the airport’s project manager. “It’s multiple different pieces spanning multiple generations. It’s not phased to grow into the future, which is where we need a new building to be.”

Since 2003 alone, the airport has seen passenger growth increase 70 percent, with four new airlines now serving Missoula and seven new routes.

With growth in mind, Daines and Sen. Jon Tester have helped secure funding for the project. Federal appropriations and airport revenue represent the largest pots of funding.

“As we go forward looking at the challenges we face in Washington, D.C., with divided government, one of the unifiers is infrastructure,” Daines said.

“We think of highways, bridges and ports. From a Montana perspective, that’s all true except for the port, but we’d also add rural water projects and airports. It’s a very important part of keeping Montana connected not just to the U.S., but the rest of the world.”

Demolition of the old passenger terminal continued on Tuesday. The first phase of the new facility is set to open in 2021. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The Missoula airport handled nearly 850,000 passengers in 2018. That was up 76,000 passengers from the prior year and represents an increase of nearly 10 percent.

Of the $3.7 billion spent in Montana’s five tourism regions last year, Glacier Country captured $1.1 billion. That includes $295 million in Missoula County, placing it third outside Gallatin and Flathead counties for its tourism clout.

Money spent by visitors carries a nearly $7 billion economic impact across the state.

“We’re further away from population centers, and that can be an asset for us but it’s also a liability,” Daines said. “The outdoor economy is a $7 billion business in Montana and this (airport) is a great facilitator for that.”

The year-over-year growth in passengers, both leisure and business, prompted the Missoula airport to break ground on a new terminal, and getting it completed can’t come soon enough, airport officials have said.

The first major phase includes demolition of the western portion of the old terminal and replacing it with a five-gate concourse, including new security screening and ticketing. That facility will be fully functional when it opens in 2021.

The second phase will remove the rest of the terminal, less the baggage claim, and replace it with a second concourse holding three or four additional passenger gates. Each gate will have room to serve aircraft large enough to seat 150 passengers.

“We’re busy – we’re constrained to the max,” said Damrow. “We’re looking at multiple phases of this terminal project and cost wise it left us about the same as starting from scratch. The impact on passengers would have been not a pleasant experience” if the airport did another addition.

While business and leisure travel have helped drive up passenger counts, the addition of new carriers and new flights hasn’t hurt. Last year, American Airlines launched new service to Dallas and Chicago.

“Every year, we talk about the number of enplanements and how it has jumped year over year,” said Jeff Roth, a member of the Missoula County Airport Authority. “If you were to go to the airport during one our busy banks of flights, there’s just no capacity for any additional passengers. We’re bursting at the seams.”