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There’s a walk-through metal detector where the grizzly under glass once stood.

That should help get your bearings at the “new-look” Missoula International Airport terminal, where in a surprisingly few hours Tuesday night all three lanes of the Transportation Security Administration screening operation were moved from the far west end to the “griz” lobby in the center.

It was a necessary first step as airport officials, airlines and TSA gear up for a years-long, $100 million reconstruction project. The lion’s share is scheduled for completion by this time in 2021. It’s a new south concourse to replace the west wing of the terminal, which was added for $4.2 million in 2007.

“The plan was to basically move one lane a night starting (Tuesday) and finish up Thursday night, but they got everything moved in one day,” said Tim Damrow, who as projects manager is overseeing the rebuild of the airport under the auspices of Martel Construction.

By the time the last tools were picked up at around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, seven or eight passengers on the 5:30 a.m. Delta flight to Minneapolis were checked in and waiting to pass through security. Other than the new location, the gates looked much the same.

“They literally picked up that configuration and plopped it in here,” deputy airport director Brian Ellestad said.

By the end of January, demolition of the west end will commence. Over the next three years, a new concourse will rise, angling to the south with several passenger gates attached — the “south paw,” as it’s being affectionately called, in keeping with the airport’s grizzly motif.

(The huge and hugely popular grizzly in its glass enclosure is still around, Damrow assured. Its new lair is in a far corner of baggage claim.)

Airport officials continue to emphasize that construction of a new terminal, starting with the $67 million first phase, isn't driven by local tax increases. It is dependent on federal funding, which is never a sure thing, and user fees collected from ticket sales by the airlines and distributed back to the airport. 

Damrow said the Missoula project has at least eight "stop points" built in, in case funding dries up at any stage.   

Planning for the new terminal has been in the works for several years, and it’s coming to fruition not a year too soon.

American Airlines arrived on the scene in June, and the shortcomings of an airport that was already experiencing yearly passenger growth were underscored.

“With the addition of American Airlines and the continued growth of our existing carriers, MSO has added over 228,000 new seats on a full-year basis,” airport director Cris Jensen said in a press release earlier this week. “This remarkable growth continues to illustrate the need for a new terminal.”

So, too, does word that Delta Airline next year will be adding a fourth daily flight to Salt Lake City and Saturday non-stop service to Los Angeles.

Jensen called the checkpoint move “a major milestone” in the terminal project.

“This is a big pre-positioning move,” Damrow said. “There’s a lot of moving pieces obviously with the new checkpoint with the flow of people, and getting people to make sure they know where they’re going. But now that that (west) side of the building is unoccupied, they can begin the real fun part of construction.”

By late spring into early summer, the foundations of the new structure will be poured, and probably by late fall 2019 the structural steel will start going up.

“That’s where I get excited,” Damrow said. “You get to start seeing progress.”

When the South Concourse is finished, security gates will be on the second level and their present location will probably revert to a lobby.

With Jedediah’s Restaurant behind security gates, though still on floor level, passengers will have access to a full kitchen and bar after they’ve passed TSA muster.

Within a week, a “grab-and-go” food option will be available near baggage claim on the east end of the terminal, which is where you’ll be directed when greeting deplaning passengers.

Last week a new ground boarding gate, Gate 7, opened in back of Jedediah’s. It was a busy place Wednesday afternoon, as a wave of Allegiant Airlines passengers, many obviously returning from the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, deplaned. Another crowd, many in cowboy hats, waited to take their place on the 1:50 p.m. flight.

“It’ll probably be the coolest gate in the airport,” said Damrow. “During some of our later phasing in the project we’re going to need to move one of our jet bridges, so during that time we’d need a place to put those flights that would have occupied that gate.

“We had this natural space down here in the restaurant, larger than any of our gates upstairs. It’s right next to the bar, you’re in the middle of the restaurant with good Wi-Fi access, and you have a super short walk to the plane.”

The next step, starting as early as Thursday, is adjusting the ticket counter space. It’ll remain in the middle of the terminal but the Alaska Airlines counter sits within the footprint of the building that will be demolished. The shuffle will involve all the airlines. In the end there’ll be more room in a space “that gets kind of crammed in the summer,” Damrow said.

Then, let the demo begin.

“This is the first big milestone,” said Damrow. “In my opinion it’s probably the biggest one.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

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