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American Airline official in Missoula

Billy Glunz, director of government affairs for American Airlines, spoke at a press conference following the first American Airlines flight into Missoula on June 7, 2018. Officials credit American's arrival with lower fares and more choices for those flying on all six carriers serving Missoula International Airport.  

Same song, new year.

Statistics released Thursday reflected record numbers of passengers in 2018 for the fifth year in a row at Missoula International Airport, which saw a one-year growth of nearly 10 percent.

Even as an extensive rebuild began, the MSO terminal handled 848,444 people boarding and arriving, in a year that saw the arrival of American Airlines change the landscape of air travel in these parts. That compares to 772,625 in 2017.

The 9.8 percent bump is believed to be among the largest in recent history for an airport that counted fewer than 400,000 people through its gates 20 years ago.  

Part of the explanation is the same as last year's, when a more modest 2 percent increase was reported.

“The continued growth of passengers into and out of the Missoula International Airport is a reflection of the positive economic health and growth of tourism in the Greater Missoula area,” airport director Cris Jensen said in a press release, mirroring last year’s message.

The difference Thursday came in what he said next: “With the addition of American Airlines, we have seen increased competition in our market place which has brought lower airfares for our customers.”

Texas-based American, the world’s largest airline in terms of fleet size and passenger loads, arrived in Missoula on June 7 with daily nonstop service between Missoula and Dallas-Fort Worth. It launched summer nonstop flights to and from Chicago at the same time.

American’s 2018 passenger numbers of roughly 34,000 weren’t overwhelming in the nearly seven months it served Missoula. By comparison, more than 200,000 flew Horizon/Alaska Air, the airport’s busiest carrier, in the full year, according to statistics from the Montana Department of Transportation’s aeronautics division.

But airport officials say American’s entrance into the Missoula market has resulted in the other five airlines adding more seats, bigger airplanes and new destinations as competition grows. That, they say, goes hand in hand with lower air fares.

Missoula’s passenger load of 848,888 continued to rank third in the state. According to MDT statistics, Bozeman led the way with 1.3 million in 2018, followed by Billings at roughly 883,000.

Glacier Park International was fourth with 612,607, a number that grew by 13.6 percent from 2017. The Kalispell airport recently announced American will be landing there in June, with flights to Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago and Los Angeles.

You can now fly nonstop year-round from Missoula to eight U.S. metropolitan areas: Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Phoenix-Mesa, Portland, Salt Lake City and Seattle. Seasonal nonstop flights are available to Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco.

Frontier signaled the growth in its Missoula traffic to and from Denver by moving up its seasonal starting date for four weekly flights to March 22, in time for spring break.

Allegiant Airlines will resume service to Oakland on May 16 and to Los Angeles on June 7.

United Airlines will restart Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco service on June 6, the same day American resumes seasonal service to Chicago.

Delta Air Lines will launch new Saturday flights between Missoula and Los Angeles on June 8, and resume seasonal service to Atlanta on June 9.

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian