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Three-year-old Clarice Marques rides atop a roller bag through Missoula International Airport on Thursday morning, traveling with her mom and dad, Janaina and Pedro Marques, to Denver for the holidays.

The Missoula International Airport passenger terminal was not built to handle its growing crowds or the security needs of a post-9/11 airport.

However, a plan for a drastically redesigned terminal building is in the works and a final concept for a multi-million-dollar upgrade should be in place by the end of the year.

The project won't increase local taxes.

“We’re trying to narrow (the design) down from five options to our preferred alternative,” said airport deputy director Brian Ellestad. “We’re getting close, but we’re not there. We’re looking into whether it would be better to rebuild or remodel or a mix of the two.”

The impetus for creating a new passenger terminal is rooted in one simple problem: “We just need more space,” Ellestad explained.

“It’s not efficient right now. Everything’s outdated. Everything’s designed pre-9/11. Our front lobby is too big," but holding rooms for passengers are too small, he said. "We need to readjust the space within the building.”

Passenger numbers this year are up 7 percent over last year, Ellestad said, continuing a trend of increased traffic for the past three years. A total of 350,361 people boarded planes at the airport last year, an all-time record.

"We've been on an increase every year for the last three years, and we expect another big year this year," Ellestad said. "We just need more space for waiting areas."

One of the main problems is that customers have to go to the ticket counter and then carry their bags to a security line a good distance away. That creates traffic problems and confusion for travelers.

“We want to design it so the customer checks their bag and goes right to security directly from the ticket counter,” Ellestad said.

The design will be financed mostly through user fees and grants from the federal government. Ellestad said there’s no estimate of how much the project will cost because designs haven’t been finalized yet. However, in the past, airport officials have estimated the project's budget to be roughly $42 million.

“We want to keep our rates and charges flat to the airlines,” Ellestad said. “It’s always our goal to not give airlines a reason to raise ticket prices."

The main sticking point right now is how many phases the construction will have to go through.

“We are trying to design it in a way that has the least impact as possible during the construction process,” Ellestad said. “We could do a remodel, but it could end up being nine to 12 different phases. That adds cost and confusion to our customers.

"We’re trying to narrow it down to only being a three to four phase project. Some phases have temporary structures, and that adds cost. We like to keep it minimal for both airlines and the traveling public.”

The Missoula County Airport Authority Board will meet on Tuesday, Sept. 27, to try to finalize a plan.

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