Missoula Internatinal Airport sign

Ticket prices at Missoula International Airport dropped $50 a seat from the last quarter of 2017 to the same time in 2018.

The average cost dropped from $456 to $406, the lowest in Montana, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

More than 103,000 passengers departed Missoula during the last quarter of 2018. The 11% reduction in airfare resulted in direct savings to passengers of more than $5 million, the airport said in press release Tuesday.

Airport officials attribute the drop to the addition last June of American Airlines.

“This is the second full quarter with American Airlines serving our market, and we have seen a dramatic decline in prices,” said airport director Cris Jensen.

Missoula is Montana’s third-busiest airport behind Bozeman and Billings. The local airport has jousted with Great Falls International for the lowest airfares in recent years, slipping into first place in the spring of 2018 and holding the mantle for the three quarters since then. Ticket price data for the first quarter of 2019, which ended March 31, isn’t available yet.

American Airlines, based in Dallas-Fort Worth, is the world’s largest commercial airline by most measures. It first came to Montana in the spring of 2016 with seasonal connections to Bozeman Yellowstone International. Now it flies or is planning to fly into several Treasure State cities.

American is scheduled to begin direct-flight summer service on June 6 between Glacier International in Kalispell and Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Chicago.

But Missoula — with American connections to Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago, and with added flights in the last few years by Delta, United and Frontier, among others — seems to be benefiting most in terms of low ticket prices.

“I don’t know if I can really give you an answer why, other than we believe in general competition that puts a downward pressure on pricing,” Jensen told the Missoulian. “There’s always the potential for other factors at work.”

The latest average airfare numbers rank Great Falls $10 higher than Missoula at $416, followed by Bozeman ($441), Kalispell ($458) and Billings ($464).

Most of the nation’s largest airports averaged in the $300 to $400 range in the last quarter of 2018. Missoula’s $406 average was on par with Dallas-Fort Worth’s $404, San Francisco’s $406 and Houston’s $417.

At $247, Las Vegas, Nevada, had the lowest fares among major airports. Florida destinations Orlando and Fort Lauderdale were close behind at $255 and $256.

Missoula is one of a number of Montana communities that have used revenue guarantees and marketing support to bring new airlines and new destinations to their airports. The Missoula Economic Partnership and Destination Missoula/Missoula TBID (Tourism Business Improvement District) have been instrumental in attracting bigger and better air travel options.

The growth has carried over to 2019, with enplanements in Missoula up 18% in January, 20% in February and 17% in March. Seat projections for the year are up 8%, which would continue a streak of record years.

“It’s a good thing for all of us,” Jensen said. “The big thing is to make sure we’re taking advantage of the service we have. That’s what keeps airfares reasonable, is keeping the airlines healthy and happy.”

Frontier resumed seasonal service to Denver last month, its earliest date since the Denver-based airline returned to Missoula in 2014.

United starts summer service to Chicago on May 4, and to Los Angeles and San Francisco on June 6.

Allegiant’s seasonal service to Oakland begins May 19 and service to Los Angeles starts on June 7.

American’s Chicago service starts June 6, and Delta’s summer service to Atlanta and Los Angeles resumes June 8.

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