Quietly, Frontier Airlines has either extended its four-days-a-week service between Missoula and Denver or shortened it, depending on who you talk to.
The Denver-based carrier is scheduling flights in and out of the Garden City through Jan. 5, 2015.
That’s longer than Missoula International Airport director Cris Jensen was expecting last winter, when Frontier announced it was returning to Missoula in June after a 19-year hiatus.
“Initially, we always assumed it was going to be a seasonal service, summer only, so kind of June to Labor Day,” Jensen said Friday.
But that’s not how Frontier framed it. Its announcement was for year-round, nonstop service to Denver for Missoula; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Sioux City, Iowa; and Bakersfield, California. At the same time, it bumped up several market “underdogs,” including Bozeman, to daily flights to and from its Mile High hub.
Months later, the airlines came back to Missoula and requested a financial guarantee to get it through next winter. Missoula refused, offering instead to guarantee all of 2015 to balance out the lean months with the good ones for contributors.
Frontier wouldn’t go for that, said James Grunke, president and chief executive officer of the Missoula Economic Partnership.
MEP and the Air Service Task Force, a group of business and community leaders who’ve taken on the task of luring low-cost passenger flights to Missoula, felt blindsided by Frontier’s request.
“When they first entered the market here, they did not ask for a revenue guarantee,” Grunke said. “They came back at the end of June or the first part of July saying it looks like we’ll need a revenue guarantee from around Jan. 4 until, let’s say, April 1 – the winter months.”
Frontier’s timing was bad, he added. The request came after only a couple weeks of service.
“When we go to businesses and ask for their contributions, of course they’re going to ask what the impacts are. Well, only two weeks into the service, it was hard for us to show,” Grunke said.
Now there are more complete numbers, and they’re promising. The 138-seat Frontier Airbus A319 flights to Denver are routinely all but filled – to 92 percent capacity in June and 93 percent in July. There’s evidence in recent weeks that the flights are driving down ticket prices of the other airlines too, which Grunke said will be the biggest benefit derived from Frontier’s emergence.
For its part, Frontier is satisfied so far. The proof will be when the snow flies.
“Missoula has been a good seasonal destination for Frontier Airlines and we’re pleased by the response our low-fare service has received this summer,” Frontier spokesman Todd Lehmacher said in a statement.
With numbers in hand, Grunke said it’s not out of the question that the task force could raise Frontier’s guarantee by January (the airport itself is prohibited from being part of a revenue guarantee). But it’s still a hard sell to ask businesses to pony up a revenue guarantee for the winter.
And while Frontier is under no obligation to return next spring or summer, the success of its Missoula service so far gives Jensen and Grunke confidence that it will.
Regardless of the airline, Grunke said, “the need to have a reliable pool of money from the community is going to be vital for future air service, whether it be negotiating year-round service with United to Chicago, or opening new markets, or saying we want daily service to Atlanta, whatever it may be.
“That’s just the nature of it today, the airlines want to have communities share the risk with them. So it’s really important that we have a fund that we can do this, for continued service and variety.”
It’s remarkable, Grunke noted, that Missoula has its existing service with no revenue guarantees in place – five airlines, most of which are increasing their available seating capacity even as the summer season draws to a close.
Bozeman has Big Sky Resort, which Grunke said puts hundreds of thousands of dollars into revenue guarantees for airlines flying in and out of Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport.
Missoula is looking into what he calls the Jackson Hole model for airline guarantees. The Wyoming winter and summer resort town has an organization dedicated solely to raising money and negotiating with airlines, he said.
“They’re actually guaranteeing something in return. In Jackson Hole, you get a transferable season ski pass to their three area resorts in return for your contribution to the pool,” said Grunke.
That pool, which is not tapped if flights are booked to a level satisfactory to the airlines, is in the neighborhood of $1 million, in a town of 20,000. That’s the range of funding Missoula, with a metropolitan area five times that size, would be looking at, Grunke said.
The addition of Frontier is just one factor that has put the Missoula airport on a record-setting pace in 2014.
Existing airlines are adding seats for the fall. Alaska Airlines appears to be making a year-round flight on Horizon out of what was announced to be daily summer service to Portland, Oregon. Come next week, Delta will start sending an Airbus to Missoula for the early morning departure flight, the first time in years the airline will have flown one of its bigger mainline aircraft here on a regular basis.
“What we’re seeing this fall is that we have a lot more available seats than we’ve ever had before,” Jensen said. “Our numbers in September are up 40 percent over September last year in terms of available seats. Our numbers in October are up 42 percent.”
Projections are for enplanements – people who board planes here to fly elsewhere – to be up at least 10 percent over 2013. By the end of December, totals could soar over 320,000 for an airport that in its history has topped 300,000 just once, barely, two years ago.
“That’s really fast growth for an airport this size,” Jensen said. “That’s kind of the reason the terminal is having the challenges it has. We’re just scrambling to accommodate people.”
Travelers don’t have to see the numbers. Standing in long security lines and waiting at crowded gates mornings, evenings and especially afternoons this summer, they’ve had pretty good anecdotal evidence that it has never been busier.
Long term, a $40 million airport terminal expansion is in the works. Jensen said initial plans call for an extensive remodel and an additional 30,000 square feet to the 130,000-square-foot facility. Construction is four or five years down the road as the Missoula County Airport Authority refinances existing debt in order to start the project debt-free.
The summer boom was anticipated in time to double the size of restrooms upstairs behind the security gate, and to build a small but inspired open-air deck overlooking the airfield for waiting passengers who’ve passed through security. Two food vendors now cater to passengers upstairs.
Those improvements have helped ease some pressure, Jensen said, but the numbers keep climbing – 2,200 more departing passengers in May than in the same month last year, 4,400 more in June, and nearly 5,000 in July. Counting those deplaning as well, 320 more passengers than last year converged each day on the airport in July.
“This year for the first time ever, we’ve had multiple days during the summer with more than 2,000 departing or enplaning passengers. Two years ago, a busy day for us was about 1,400 enplaning passengers,” Jensen said.
There’s always guesswork and leaps of faith for airlines when it comes to expanding flights and seats, Jensen said. But there are strong numbers in place to back up Missoula’s case.
“I think the market just has had some pent-up demand, so we’ve seen that and the airlines have certainly seen that and they’re responding to it,” he said. “The flipside of that coin is if people don’t use it, next year we’ll see it drop off. We really want to encourage people to get on those airplanes and use them.”