Airports are vital economic hubs, especially for rural communities like Missoula. Unfortunately, it's long been too expensive and inconvenient to fly in and out of Missoula, and that's hobbled the local economy.

Well, no more. For the past few years, Missoula International Airport has made major investments in its facilities and air service, and it's having a measurable effect on the affordability and convenience of local air travel. Now's the time to recognize and encourage those efforts as the airport plans its next major push to expand service and make prices even more competitive.

For starters, two years ago the airport approached the Missoula County Development Office to help pay for an aviation ramp expansion. The office agreed to kick in $400,000. However, the project was completed this year at a cost $344,000 lower than budgeted, and the county ultimately paid only $277,646 to match contributions from both the airport and Northstar Jet, which is already making use of the expanded ramp to expand its fleet.

At the same time, Homestead Helicopters recently completed a new $1 million facility, and NorthWest Medstar is now planning its own new facility. The airport is working on a new $2 million taxiway, new flight information screens and a new observation desk.

And those are just the physical improvements to the airport. In terms of service, five airlines now offer nonstop service between Missoula and 12 cities in the United States. Notably, the addition of more service - such as Frontier Airlines - pushed down the average cost of a one-way ticket. Last year, the average fare in Missoula was lower than in Billings, Bozeman - and even Spokane - and passenger counts reached record heights.

The airport continues to look for new ways to attract more flights. It recently submitted an application for a U.S. Transportation grant that, if successful, would allow Missoula to team up with Bozeman to share nonstop service to Dallas-Forth Worth through American Airlines, or perhaps to Houston through United Airlines.

It goes to show how popular the idea is that the Missoula Economic Partnership was able to raise $100,000 from local business leaders in short order to match funding from the Missoula Tourism Business Improvement District. That money, along with nearly $300,000 in airport services, would combine with the $750,000 grant to create some $1.2 million in revenue guarantees. Bozeman already has its grant in hand and is ready to offer $1.7 million in incentives.

Teaming up with Bozeman is a smart move. Air service has grown increasingly competitive as more communities offer incentives and reduced-risk markets.

Which is why the local Air Service Task Force is currently working on a funding plan that would allow Missoula to move quickly to seize future opportunities. A consultant is researching which options might work best for our community and our airport.

All these activities point the way to more affordable and accessible air travel for residents, visitors and business travelers - a direction that is sure to give Missoula's economy a lift.

Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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