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Passengers at the Missoula International Airport are pictured in this 2016 file photo.

KIRA VERCRUYSSEN, Missoulian file photo

A coalition of tourism and business groups in Missoula has launched a new effort to attract more direct flight options to the Missoula International Airport, a move it says would boost the economy and lower fares.

Destination Missoula, the Missoula Tourism Business Improvement District, the Missoula Economic Partnership and others call the campaign “Take Flight Missoula,” and the goal is to raise at least $400,000 and as much as $600,000 to match a Small Community Air Service Grant won by the airport last year.

The grant guarantees revenue to an airline to add a new service route here, and would be given only if the route doesn't prove popular enough to turn a profit for the company.

Right now, the airport is trying to attract either an American Airlines direct flight to Dallas or a United Airlines flight to Houston, according to airport deputy director Brian Ellestad.

“We’re constantly meeting with airlines and pitching new routes,” he explained. “We met with United recently and we’re trying to get a follow-up meeting with American. Coming up, we’ll have meetings with Delta. Anytime you add new routes and competition, airfares are usually lower because you have another connecting opportunity. More options means lower prices.”

The grant requires that at least $400,000 of the matching funds are from the community, so that’s why the MEP and the TBID are working to get that money.

Barb Neilan, the executive director of Destination Missoula, said that revenue guarantees are becoming more common.

“The ballgame has completely changed,” she said. “The way it used to be, airlines would either make it or they wouldn’t. Now (revenue guarantees) have become the norm. There are hardly any airlines that do not ask for them.”

Most of the time, she said, the money doesn't have to be used because enough passengers buy tickets to make the proposition profitable for the airline. However, every once in awhile, a new flight falls short of projections and a community has to pay the airline to make up the shortfall.

Neilan said that her organization and the MEP have so far raised roughly $250,000 from local businesses. She said Missoula is competing against other communities that have up to $1 million lying around as a way to attract airlines.

“What that allows them to do is to go out to airlines and say, ‘This money is here. We’re ready to rock and roll,’ and it gives them an advantage,” she said. “You have to have the money there.”

Neilan said that the data her organization collects show that tourists and business owners in Texas are routinely interested in looking at Missoula as a place to visit or relocate.

“Once somebody has picked up the phone to call our call center, that’s the second stage,” she said. “The first stage is glancing and looking online. The second stage is making a phone call and requesting a visitor guide. Generally, those are the people who show up. We track everything we do so we can see what markets are for us. About six years ago Texas never used to be in the Top 5, but now they are within the Top 3 and sometimes No. 1.”

Ellestad said that the airlines have leverage because communities like Billings, Bozeman and Boise compete against Missoula for the same flights.

“Communities have to have money, skin in the game to get airlines to do new routes these days,” he said. “We’d love to have Houston or Dallas next summer. Or maybe get one next year or the year after or maybe both. It depends on aircraft and pilot availability.”

The MEP has hired local ad agency Windfall to do the marketing for the new Take Flight Missoula campaign.

The airport is in the midst of planning for a $42 million expansion of its terminal to accomodate increases in passengers over the past several years.

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