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If you’ve been paying attention to the news in Missoula lately, you’ve probably heard a few rumblings about air service. It’s a hot topic in Missoula, and for plenty of reasons. Access to affordable, efficient air service impacts everyone in our community — from the out of state college student who can’t afford to travel home for the holidays, to the business traveler whose entire day is spent traveling because direct flight options aren’t available.

In 2012, we developed an Air Service Task Force to address air service in Missoula as a strategic initiative and our first success was the introduction of Frontier Airlines into the market. Since then, we have seen Delta offer direct flights to Seattle and Atlanta, and most recently, United Airlines announced daily direct flights to Los Angeles beginning this summer. But why is this important to us?

Aside from its importance to the community as individual travelers, access to quality air service directly impacts our ability to conduct economic development for a few specific reasons.

Direct flights matter. We don’t attempt to recruit potential businesses from areas that don’t have a year-round direct flight to Missoula. Why? Because companies need direct flight access to headquarters to even consider a location for expansion.

Consider this scenario: you’re the head of a large IT firm looking to open a satellite location in the Intermountain West. Missoula has the infrastructure and workforce you’re looking for, as well as the industry cluster to support your business. There’s just one problem: you’re headquartered in Chicago, and you require regular travel to headquarters for your upper management employees. Even though your company has a substantial travel budget, and the cost of airfare between Missoula and Chicago fits within that scope, the time cost to your company due to the lack of a year-round direct flight eliminates Missoula from the running.

Missoula simply can’t compete with other similar communities that have year-round direct flights to areas like Chicago, the Bay Area and Southern California. We would be recruiting in these target rich communities with the addition of direct flight access.

Cost of travel, in both cash and time-cost, is a burden for businesses already located in Missoula as well. The necessity to allocate a large percentage of a company’s operating budget for travel expenses can make Missoula businesses less competitive and profitable than similar businesses located in other areas. If Missoula businesses can compete more efficiently elsewhere, we risk losing their contributions to the local economy.

Access to affordable air service also directly affects Missoula businesses’ ability to recruit qualified workforce from outside of the region. Cost of air travel is a real concern for workers who are relocating from another area. If the cost of airfare is too expensive to return for visits, or even to vacation elsewhere, highly qualified potential workers may seriously consider whether they can afford to take a job here. Missoula is facing an impending workforce shortage, and access to air travel is a crucial component in the context of recruitment solutions.

So what are we doing about the issue of air service in Missoula? Take Flight Missoula is an effort led by a task force of local organizations and stakeholders including Missoula Economic Partnership, Destination Missoula, Missoula International Airport, and Windfall, Inc. to pursue and compete for increased direct air service to our community.

Not only will increased air service drive prices down, attract more tourists, and make travel more convenient through increased connectivity — it will directly benefit economic development, and enhance our ability to help Missoula thrive.

James Grunke is president and chief executive officer of the Missoula Economic Partnership. He writes a monthly column for the Missoulian’s Sunday Western Montana InBusiness section.

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