BUTTE – Montana needs more flights.
It’s a message U.S. Sen. Max Baucus has heard over and over during his decades in Congress.
On Monday, business leaders from across the state heard suggestions from a top airline executive about how Montanans can work together to increase air service, during Day One of the Montana Economic Development Summit in Butte.
Delta Air Lines Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson told Baucus and a crowd gathered at a tourism and travel discussion that his company is prepared to continue investing in Montana.
Then, Anderson challenged the crowd to get creative when it comes to filling the planes coming in and out of the state.
“With the help of state and local communites, we can continue the double-digit growth we’ve seen in the last year,” Anderson said.
Key to maintaining growth is cooperation across a broad spectrum of key players, such as the owners of Montana ski resorts and top tourism leaders.
“You have an enormously wonderful product, you have to figure out as a state how you distribute Montana,” Anderson said.
For example, there is an “enormous” specialty travel and tourism industry within the leisure market being supported by Russian and Europeans fond of fly fishing.
Has Montana looked into that niche? Anderson asked.
Business leaders should have conversations with “travel agents” like American Express, which is one of three companies in America with a huge influence on where people travel, Anderson said.
“Distribution channels need to be developed more,” he advised.
Earlier in the day, Cris Jensen, Missoula International Airport director, met with Anderson to discuss air service.
Among other topics, they talked about the possibility of adding services in Missoula, such as the holiday direct flight from Missoula to Los Angeles, Jensen said.
“They’re high on our market and they like the way it’s performed. I think it’s quite possible that you’ll see additional service from them in the future,” he said.
Anderson also gave a keynote address at the summit Monday morning, which is hosting thousands of business people from across the state for two days of panels, networking and speeches by some of the top CEOs in the world.
Several new flights were mentioned Monday morning, including several coming to Bozeman.
Sam Byrne, managing partner at CrossHarbor Capital Partners, one of the parent companies that owns Big Sky Resort, said Big Sky has made a point of partnering with Delta to increase flight options to Gallatin County.
Byrne pointed out that with its recent mergers, Big Sky has become the largest ski area in the U.S.
But last year, Big Sky did 400,000 visits while Vail Ski Resort in Colorado did 1.7 million.
“We need to develop air lift,” Byrne said. “Colorado and Utah joined forces to effectively market their product. It’s something we have to do.”
Boosting options in other cities, as well as leisure travel across the state, can help increase flight options for business travelers in Missoula, Jensen said.
Getting a chance to bend Anderon’s ear and making connections at the summit are important to bringing more air service to Missoula, Jensen said.
“We’re just pushing to expand and they seem pretty receptive,” Jensen said. “Delta by far seems to be paying the most attention to Montana, the fact that they’re here says a lot.”
During the panel, Anderson also noted that creating, then touting “the kind of business environment businesses want to locate to” is important.
“You have a lot of those resources,” Anderson said, “it just takes that kind of creativity.”