Officials at Missoula International Airport raced Monday to get stranded passengers to their destinations after flight restrictions caused by heavy fog were lifted over the airfield.
A United Airlines flight from Denver was cleared to land in Missoula at 10:09 a.m. Monday, followed by an Allegiant Air flight that arrived from Great Falls after being diverted there Sunday.
“They said they have a plane coming in from Great Falls to take people out from yesterday before we go,” said Ronan resident Sheri Lien. “It’s fine as long as we’re in Las Vegas by tomorrow night. That’s when our rodeo tickets are.”
Lien, who waited with her husband and daughter, were headed to the National Finals Rodeo and had a room reservation at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Lines at the Allegiant ticket counter were filled with cowboy types hoping to leave Missoula on time.
Out on the airfield, crews seeded the fog with a mixture of liquid carbon dioxide in an effort to draw moisture from the clouds. But the fog came and went, as evidenced by the murky view from the old air traffic control tower.
Airport manager Cris Jensen said most of Sunday’s inbound flights were canceled or diverted around the fog. The cancellation of Sunday’s later flights pushed delays into Monday morning since the aircraft weren’t on hand.
Monday’s flight cancellations included the Delta Airlines nonstop morning flights to Salt Lake City and Minneapolis, an Alaska Airlines morning flight to Seattle, and United’s flight to Denver. Several Monday night arrivals and departures were also canceled.
“Several of the flights canceled this morning didn’t arrive last night,” said Jensen. “We’re between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so thankfully we haven’t gotten into that surge in traffic yet.”
Jensen said the airlines require a horizontal visibility of more than a half mile and a vertical ceiling of more than 200 feet. Seeding the fog costs little, he added, though canceling flights can add up.
“When airplanes aren’t landing, that’s lost revenue for the airport,” Jensen said. “But typically, a day or two of fog is relatively small. The biggest concern is the inconvenience to the passengers.”
Out in the terminal, Chicago resident Jen Hanson kept track of weather updates on her phone. She was scheduled to leave Missoula early Sunday morning, but her flight was canceled.
Hanson was rebooked for two subsequent departures later Sunday, but those were also canceled. She was hoping to leave Monday afternoon and was keeping her fingers crossed.
“I’ve been trying to get to Chicago since 10:23 a.m. on Sunday and I was here until about 5 last night before my friend picked me up,” she said. “There’s nothing anyone can do – it’s the weather. Everyone’s been pretty patient.”
Jensen said the airport and airlines were both working to resolve the backlog of passengers waiting to leave Missoula. Allegiant saw three jets depart within 66 minutes of each other Monday. Two of them were bound for Las Vegas.
The work is a challenge for an airport with limited room for passengers waiting in the gate area.
“There’s some capacity available, but when you start missing flights, it doesn’t take long to fill up what few vacancies we have,” said Jensen. “That’s a challenge the airlines have, trying to pick up the people wherever they are.”