Not only were ticket prices at Missoula International Airport lower than the national average last summer, they dipped below those in Spokane and Bozeman – the airports western Montanans most often flee to for cheaper flights.

Quarterly figures released recently by the Federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics showed Missoula’s average airfare in July, August and September of 2014 was $368. The national average was $396.

Neither Billings nor Bozeman – the state’s two busiest airports, respectively – was below $400. Spokane was at $386.

“It’s still an average, and you’re still going to see individual fares that may be lower in those cities. We understand the economic decisions people have to make,” Missoula airport director Cris Jensen said Thursday. “But we think we’re getting more competitive, and that’s what we’re shooting for.”

Missoula saw a record number of departures in 2014, and Jensen said at least the first half of 2015 promises to be even busier. Frontier Airlines’ return to Missoula last year as a low-cost carrier had much to do with the record and the lower fares, he said.

The summer was the first full quarter since the 1990s that Frontier came to town, and it resulted in what Jensen called “a dramatic decline in prices.”

Frontier is taking the winter off, but said recently it’ll be back in May for three-flights-a-week service to its home base in Denver. That’s more than a month earlier than in 2014, though one less flight per week.

According to Federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics (FBTS), airfares at Missoula and Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport have been neck and neck for at least two years, with little more than $20 separating them.

But Bozeman didn’t mirror Missoula’s plummet from $427 in the second quarter last year to $368 in the third. It dropped from $434 to $417 – still its lowest average ticket price in the two-year period.

“There are probably so many different factors that go into that,” Jensen said. “It’s hard to point at any one thing and say this is why.”

Ticket prices in Billings ($435 last summer) have undoubtedly been affected by losing Frontier service in 2013 as Frontier repositioned itself to serve larger markets with larger airplanes.

The cheapest fares in Montana are out of Great Falls, which has more low-cost Allegiant flights than other Montana airports. Great Falls International also broke a boarding record last year. Prices there dropped below $400 in the fall of 2013 and have remained there. They averaged $361 last summer – the most recent period figures available from the federal transportation bureau.

Airport director John Faulkner told the Great Falls Tribune this week that improving economic conditions and increased use of commercial flights by Canadians have bolstered his airport. But Frontier’s departure from Great Falls, announced last fall, coupled with low fuel prices, could lead to a slightly slower 2015.

Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell has also been on a record-setting pace the past two years. The Flathead Beacon said added flights, record visitation numbers in Glacier National Park and Whitefish Mountain Resort’s best ski season ever were factors.

The Kalispell airport had fares as high as $480 in 2013 but, by FBTS reckoning, they dropped to match last summer’s national average of $396.

Departures from Missoula International were up 13 percent in January 2015.

Besides Frontier’s return on May 14, United’s summer service to Chicago and Allegiant’s seasonal service to Los Angeles and Oakland both start on June 4.

Delta’s summer service to Atlanta resumes June 14, and United will start flying to San Francisco in early July. Alaska Airlines’ service to Portland is now year-round.

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