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More passengers boarded an airplane at Missoula International Airport in 2003 than at any time in the facility's history.

The record 253,761 passengers is more than 13,000 higher than in 2002 and eclipses the previous record of 243,242 which was set in 2001 despite the downfall that beset the airline industry after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The increase comes during a time when many airports in the nation have failed to rebound even to previous levels let alone post gains.

"We're real pleased," said Gary Boe, chairman of the Missoula Airport Authority's marketing committee which was established a few years ago. "It really does showcase that we have survived much better than the general group."

With downsizing by Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines is the dominant carrier, with more than a 27 percent market share. Skywest, the regional carrier which now handles Delta's routes out of Missoula, nearly doubled in size and now controls more than a 19 percent share, while Horizon's numbers also increased to nearly a 22 percent share.

"Particularly in light with what the industry is facing with all the cutbacks and decreased enplanements (boardings) at many airports across the nation, we're really happy," added John Seymour, director of airports for the Airport Authority.

Except in 2002 when growth was flat, the number of passengers at Missoula has increased yearly, he said, and there's also growth at some of the state's other major facilities.

For the ninth straight year, boardings at Gallatin Field in Bozeman increased and to a record level of more than 282,000 passengers, leaving the gateway to the Big Sky ski resort and Yellowstone National Park trailing only Billings in the number of passengers.

Boe said the Airport Authority and staff work hard at not only attracting business but also treating people well when they use the airport. A strong effort also has been made to add amenities to make the flying public's experience as enjoyable as possible.

"We're trying to make the airport run like a business," he said. "We serve the public who own that airport."

The remodeling of the restaurant and lounge, addition of a second gift shop and a second-story latte cart, holiday curb-side service and making televisions available for the waiting public are some of the steps that have been taken to enhance the facility.

"It's just the little things. We're trying to make it as consumer friendly as possible," said Boe. "We've worked hard to try and make it a pleasant experience in these times of tough security and restrictions. We try and make it as less stressful as possible."

Seymour said the airport's location - some 200 miles from any major alternative - and the area's strong economy are factors in the airport's growth, but the service provided to six hub cities also figures prominently.

"Obviously we want to continue to attract good service, the best service we can for our airport," he said.

"We want them to have the very best connections," added Boe. "There aren't very many airports in the country our size that have as many direct flights as we have. We're pretty proud of that."

Delta Air Lines recently began nonstop service from Billings to Cincinnati with a 70-seat regional jet. Such over-flying of a hub airport like Salt Lake City, for example, could be in the offing in Missoula.

"There's some potential for service to other cities out there," said Seymour. "I think you're going to see more of that. If your market's strong enough to support the flight to Cincinnati or the flight to LAX or to Las Vegas, sooner or later somebody will fill that niche but it's all numbers driven. You need to have the people who want to fly from point A to point B to get a direct flight."

Reporter Mick Holien can be reached at 523-5262 or at mholien@missoulian.com

Flight information

Big Sky Airlines now has its own staff at both the Missoula and Helena airports. Passengers are to check in at the Horizon counter where they will be met by Big Sky employees. At Misssoula, Big Sky flights will continue to arrive and depart from Gate 3.

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