Come April, Missoula and the Bay Area of California will be barely two hours apart.
Allegiant Travel Co. announced Tuesday it's adding nonstop flights to Oakland/San Francisco to and from four Montana cities - Missoula, Kalispell, Bozeman and Billings. Allegiant flies MD-80 jets that seat 150 passengers.
Beginning April 27, you can fly from western Montana on Friday mornings and return early Monday. Allegiant is offering introductory fares for as low as $39.99 one way, subject to some restrictions. Early Tuesday, there were even some $19 flights. Those quickly disappeared after the announcement was publicized.
"I can tell you we just checked a couple of the other (Montana) markets, and Missoula is going like hotcakes. The inventory is selling out very, very quickly," Leslie Wustrack, manager of marketing and advertising at Missoula International Airport, said Tuesday afternoon.
United Express currently flies from Missoula to the Bay Area and back, but only in the summer. This will be Missoula's first year-round offering to and from the metro area of 8 million people, airport director Cris Jensen said at an airport news conference.
Allegiant began offering direct flights to Las Vegas in 2005, to Phoenix-Mesa in 2007 and to Los Angeles in 2009.
The latest addition comes at a time when many airlines are cutting back.
Allegiant does its homework, said Paul Stafford, who chairs the Missoula airport board of commissioners.
"Every airline takes a hard look at expanding routes. Everyone's got a different business model in terms of what aircraft they operate and how full they can make them and what destinations they're going to. Allegiant does a great job of selecting destinations," Stafford said.
The announcement comes in a year when the Golden Gate Bridge's 75th birthday will be feted. It's also the inaugural season for California-Davis to enter the Big Sky football conference, joining neighbor Sacramento State. Those schools are 80 and 90 miles, respectively, from Oakland International Airport. The Montana Grizzlies are scheduled to travel to both in the 2013 football season.
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Jensen foresees Grizzly fans using the Allegiant connections much as they do to Phoenix when UM plays at Northern Arizona.
"We see fans flying to Phoenix, renting a car and driving up to Flagstaff, so we already know that the football fans figured it out early on," Jensen said. "So this will be another great opportunity for them to get to games."
Likewise, fans of Sacramento State and UC Davis can make an easy hop to Missoula.
"It's just as important to us that people come into our community and put heads in beds in motels here as it is for our community to go to San Francisco or any other destination," Jensen said.
"There are probably a lot of people in the Bay Area - and Allegiant doing their due diligence - that find Missoula attractive as well," said Ron Anderson, general manager of Missoula's Hilton Garden Inn. "Fully 60-plus percent of all our summer visitors come to Missoula because we're a gateway to one of the two national parks. So it's not just Missoulians going to San Francisco. There's great interest in San Francisco coming to the great Northwest, too."
Allegiant is still weighing its options of what western cities will service direct flights to Hawaii, Jensen said. An announcement is anticipated soon.
"I don't expect we'll be in the mix in the beginning," Jensen allowed. "We'll continue to try to convince them that we should be in the mix, but I think that remains to be seen."
Gulfstream International Airlines is considering a Missoula-to-Billings flight, which Jensen said has a lot of attractiveness, given the oil boom in eastern Montana.
"Basically what they told us is they are analyzing it and hopefully by the end of January they will have made their decision," he said.