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Missoula Internatinal Airport sign

There’s an air of urgency around planners for a new airport terminal at Missoula International, but it’s not without levity.

After lining out the latest version of an oft-changing timeline for the airport authority board on Tuesday, Steve Conway of Martel Construction added the caveat: “This is a preliminary schedule.”

There was knowing laughter all around the conference board room at the airport.

“They recognize there’s a lot of things beyond our control,” airport director Cris Jensen said after the meeting. “We’re kind of at the whims of Congress and the (Federal Aviation Administration).”

Conway is vice president of Bozeman-based Martel Construction, the general contractor and construction manager of the design phase. Martel is working with the engineering firm of Morrison-Maierle, A&E Architects and the airport. Construction bids will go out later.

“This would be kind of the official kickoff of ‘we’re really going to do this,’” Jensen said.

Conway described, and the board approved, a design schedule that needs to be completed and ready to roll by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. According to the "preliminary schedule," construction will be completed and the new terminal fully operating the week before Christmas in 2021.

The plan calls for demolition of the west end to start in December, and to start “going vertical” in September 2019.

“In order to be in position to accept discretionary money, we need to have some ‘usable units of work,’ which is the FAA’s terminology, that we can bid out prior to the end of the fiscal year,” Jensen said. “We really think by August we need to have the first couple of bid packages put together so we can advertise and go to bid and give the FAA time to grant us the funds.”

“This is the road map we set last year,” Conway said. “We’ve just moved it back a little bit, accelerated some things a little bit, but this is how we’re looking at the project right now.”

The master agreement with Morrison-Maierle says three design bid openings are anticipated for the project, one for demolition and foundations, one for vertical construction and one for furniture, fixtures and equipment.

Construction will be phased in so there’s no cessation of air operations, and there’ll be no temporary structures that have to be removed in the end, Jensen said. There will also be room to expand, on both ends of the main terminal, in the parking lot, and on a gate concourse that will stretch to the southwest of the main terminal.

When it’s finished, with a construction price tag of $67 million, there will be three stories in the terminal building instead of the current two, with plenty of light, and wood and stone accent. Most of the floor space and concessions will be beyond the TSA gates on the second floor, and passenger flow will be much more “intuitive.”

“We’ve talked about having a facility that you don’t have to read signs to get through,” Jensen told airline officials in a meeting on Tuesday. “Those of you who have been here, you know that if you’re not familiar with our current facility you have to have a road map to figure out your way through it.”

The airport authority board was unanimous in its approval of the final design of phases 2-4 of the new terminal. It also gave a thumbs-up to the selection of a public relations firm, The Quotient Group of Appleton, Wisconsin, to help steer the public through construction.

Shortly before the afternoon meeting convened, paint crews took to the airport runways to start re-designating them with the correct bearings. Both runways 11/29 and the shorter 7/25 will be shut down for up to eight days between 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. They’ll become 12/30 and 8/26 to ensure accurate magnetic field declination, or the difference between true north and magnetic north. That has shifted over recent decades due to the drift of the north pole toward Siberia.

Airlines have adjusted their schedules, and FedEx and UPS will be trucking express mail to another airport during the closure, said Brian Ellestad, deputy director.

Ellestad also spread good news Tuesday. A recently released Bureau of Transportation Statistics report indicated that MSO had the lowest average fare in Montana among the seven major airports in 2017. Missoula’s ticket cost of $418.09 nosed out Great Falls International’s $419.05. Great Falls had been the state leader for the previous four years at least.

Ellestad said there’s one caveat: low-cost airlines like Allegiant Air and Frontier, both of which operate out of Missoula, tend to skew the number downward. The cost of one-way tickets, which are common on Allegiant especially, are counted the same as round-trip tickets.

Kalispell’s Glacier Park International was No. 3 on the list in 2017 with an average fare of $443.85. Bozeman Yellowstone International, the state’s busiest airport, was fourth at $457.72, followed by Bilings Logan ($461.36); Butte's Bert Mooney ($514.99) and Helena Regional ($530.89). 

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Mineral County, veterans issues

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