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Missoula airport director resigns, deputy taking over temporarily

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After almost 16 years at the helm of one of Missoula's busiest organizations, Cris Jensen is taking another path.

Jensen, the director of the Missoula International Airport, has resigned to take another job, while his deputy Brian Ellestad has been promoted to temporarily take his place.

Jensen submitted his resignation Feb. 8 to take a new job with the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority. He leaves MSO at a time when the airport is in the midst of a roughly $110-million, two-phase airport terminal expansion. The first phase, a $67 million project, is expected to be complete at the end of this year and travelers will be able to enter the new three-story terminal building in early 2022.

Jensen said the project has been a total team effort and he's proud that it's on schedule and on budget as he leaves.

"We had been talking about it for close to 10 years," he explained on Wednesday. "We started out looking at a remodel of the current building, but we determined it would be too cost-prohibitive. For the amount of money we were going to spend, we might as well build a new facility."

Since the existing security checkpoint was torn down in 2018, the airport has been under constant construction. Despite that and a pandemic, Jensen is proud that the airport has added flight routes in recent years and passenger numbers at MSO haven't dropped as precipitously as other places in the United States.

"It's been really interesting," Jensen said. "There's a little bit of a dichotomy. Air travel is down across the board, and yet Montana in particular has had a fair amount of success in the last year. We've been adding additional service, including a daily service to Los Angeles we announced (Tuesday). I think we're going to continue adding those."

Jensen said the construction management team at the airport has done a fantastic job of getting the new terminal off the ground with minimal traveler disruptions.

"We have an amazing team here," he said. "Everyone functions at a very high level. They do a great job of project management. It's gone as smoothly as a project of this size could go. We have an amazing design team in Morrison-Maierle, A&E Architects and Martel Construction. That whole team buys into the whole 'Team MSO' idea. Everybody buys into it."

With so many working parts, everyone has to be on the same page, he noted.

"They're all pulling this project in the same direction. It's literally gone as smooth as a project of this magnitude could."

Jensen also said it's amazing that the entire thing is being built without any local taxpayer dollars.

"We always like to emphasize that it's based on the user fees we generate at the airport," he said. "A lot of people assume there's local tax money involved in this project."

The silver lining to the pandemic was less traffic at the airport, he said, which allowed construction crews to have more space. He said people will be impressed by the finished project, which is designed with a lot of glass to show off the beauty of the Missoula landscape.

The current terminal is two stories high and 121,000 square feet, but the new first phase of the terminal expansion will have a basement plus three stories and will be 170,000 square feet.

Ellestad, Missoula International Airport's deputy director, was appointed on Tuesday by the Missoula County Airport Authority Board of Commissioners to take over in his place. Ellestad will serve as acting director while the Airport Authority conducts a search for a new director, according to Lynn Fagan, the administrative manager for the Authority.

"Chris will be dearly missed by everyone at the airport and within the community," said Matthew Doucette, chair of the Airport Authority board. "Brian Ellestad has a proven history of stepping in to provide management and leadership whenever necessary and the Airport will be in good hands and continue to provide excellent service as we conduct our search."

Ellestad has been employed in the aviation industry for over 26 years, according to Fagan. He has been in his current position for the past 10 years. Before that, he was deputy director for marketing and communications for the Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky.

"He also spent over 16 years with Midwest Express Airlines in Milwaukee, where he held numerous positions including airline route planning, systems operations manager and director of customer service, where he provided leadership and support to a staff of over 400 employees," Fagan said in an email. "Brian is the past president of the Montana Airport Managers Association."

Ellestad told the Missoulian he definitely intends to apply for the director position on a permanent basis. 

"I want to keep the good things rolling here at the airport," he said. "Cris and I have had a great working relationship. It's been true teamwork for 10-plus years."

Jensen said it's a little bittersweet that he won't be around to see the new terminal completed, although he may have to come back to visit.

"There's never a perfect time to leave," he said. "The project is in the final stage of completion at this point. My role in the project was getting the board's support, trying to get funding lined up, getting the FAA on board and getting air carriers on board. The construction management team is focused on the actual construction project, so my role on that was just to stand back and be a cheerleader."

In mid-2021, Missoula will have nonstop flights to 16 destinations, including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Oakland, Orange County, Phoenix-Mesa, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle. Some of those are seasonal routes.

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