Exterior Missoula airport passenger terminal

A conceptual rendering of what the exterior of the new Missoula International Airport would look like.

Calling it the “front door to our community,” Missoula International Airport director Cris Jensen laid out the pitch Monday for the new terminal being designed.

Back in 2000, Missoula had only four nonstop destinations; it's now about to add a 13th, Jensen told a City Club Missoula crowd. And since that time, the airport has seen a 69 percent rise in the number of passengers, including an 8.6 percent bump over the past year — the most growth of any airport in the state.

To bring in more flights, and more airlines, the airport needs to grow as well, Jensen said.

Chris Martison, the architect from the Missoula office of A&E who is working with the airport on the design of the new terminal, showed off layouts, saying when completed, the new building will be more straightforward to navigate.

The new layout will include some changes that make more sense in a post-9/11 world, including moving the restaurants and other food vendors past the security checkpoint. Martison also highlighted a third-floor observation room in the new terminal design where families can look out across the airfield and watch planes come and go, another thing he said was lost following the security changes brought on by the terrorist attacks.

Design is still at the schematic level, about 35 percent finished. Martison said there is no firm timeline on when construction would begin. Jensen said the new terminal will be paid for through federal grants, passenger facility charges, a fund built up by the airport, and loans.

Jensen said an expanded terminal will help the airport in attracting both new airlines and new direct routes to Missoula, but that the method for doing so has changed in recent years and airlines want revenue guarantees in their contracts before starting service.

Missoula has access to a $600,000 federal grant for such revenue guarantees, but in order to make full use of it, needs to raise a matching $400,000 locally. The airport and local businesses are hoping to do that as part of a new program called Take Flight Missoula.

“(Airlines) want to know that communities have skin in the game,” Jensen said. “If they don’t make that profit margin, that’s where the revenue guarantees kick in.”

Barb Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula, said of the 12.4 million tourists in Montana every year, 4.5 million come through Missoula. While many of the tourists her organization tracks come from surrounding states, Neilan said in recent years they have seen a rise in the number from Texas, due at least in part to Texans who want to hunt and ski here.

That's why her organization and the airport have been pushing for nonstop flights to Missoula. Jensen later teased an announcement of new flight service for next week, hinting that it would be direct flights to Texas (see related story).

Unlike many of the other out-of-state tourists who show interest in Missoula, Neilan said Texans travel to Montana year-round, not just during the peak summer tourism season.

Incoming University of Montana President Seth Bodnar, who had just flown into Missoula from Chicago on Sunday, asked why, as he has traveled around the country, he’s seen a lot of advertising for Montana, but nearly all of it for Bozeman. He wondered how to change that and how better marketing might affect air travel to Missoula.

Neilan said Montana has a top-down approach to tourism marketing, with most of the money in the statewide tourism office, before marketing efforts are broken into regional and local offices. Bodnar told Neilan he would be interested in talking with her more about how to have more nationwide advertising feature the Missoula area.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.