Commercial airline travel is flying higher than ever before in Montana, but there’s been a subtle shift between east and west.
While passenger numbers at Bozeman's Yellowstone International Airport continue to leave all others in their contrails, Missoula International caught and passed Billings Logan International this summer for the No. 2 spot for what's believed to be the first time.
The lead at the end of September was slim — Missoula had handled roughly 701,000 passengers in 2019 to Billings’ 697,000. And it's tentative. Billings too is headed for a record year of boardings.
"Certainly it has the potential to be significant," said Missoula airport director Cris Jensen. "I would tell you we're probably going to be neck and neck with Billings. We know they have more seats on the market at the back end of the year, so it's completely likely they'll catch and pass us again."
Just the fact that it’s close is noteworthy. As recently as 2012, Billings, by far the state's largest city in what’s by far its largest county, handled 275,000 more passengers than Missoula did. According to figures of the Montana Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division, the difference has steadily shrunk, but it was still at 150,000 in 2015 and 35,000 at the end of last year.
"Now it's basically equal,” Jensen said. “It's a good story for all of Montana. Everybody’s growing, but some of us are growing faster."
That’s the case with western Montana’s other major airport. Kalispell’s Glacier Park International, while still No. 4 in the state, out-passengered both Missoula and Billings this summer. More than 120,000 people in July and another 113,000 in August stepped on and off airliners in the shadow of Glacier National Park and northwest Montana’s lake country.
Missoula’s comparative numbers were 113,000 and 103,000 — close to what they were in 2018 (109,000 and 105,000). Billings handled 97,000 and 91,000 in those months as Missoula nudged past.
“Part of it’s the economy on the whole,” said Daniel Reimer, development and projects manager at the Kalispell airport. “Economically we’re really blessed right now, and I think the west side of the state, while it was discovered a while ago, is continuing to play a more prominent role.”
Jensen pointed to the strong economy fueled by tourism and the growth in high tech industries in western Montana.
The Montana Department of Labor and Industry doesn't track airport traffic, but "it's a great illustration about how interconnected our economy is becoming with other states and countries, plus the increased number of tourists," said Barb Wagner, chief economist at the department's Research and Analysis Bureau, in an email.
Most of Montana's recent economic growth is in the western half of Montana, including Bozeman, noted Emily Trautman, senior economist for the bureau.
"Strong population density, positive in-migration, and the presence of large educational institutions have contributed to strong job growth, particularly in the construction, professional services, and other consumer-based industries," Trautman wrote in an email.
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"On the other hand, the eastern half of the state has experienced relatively slower economic growth. This is partially caused by the softening in the energy and agriculture industries. Fluctuations in the energy and agriculture industries may affect Billings because of lower labor income circulating in the area."
Commercial airline travel at Montana airports topped 4 million passengers for the first time in 2017 and rose to 4.39 million last year. It’s on pace to finish 2019 with close to 4.8 million.
No Montana airport has handled more than 1 million passengers in a year with the exception of Bozeman, which has done it each year since 2015. Yellowstone International broke the million mark for 2019 in August, the earliest month yet, and at 1.25 million boardings through September is on pace to easily eclipse last year's record of 1.34 million.
Missoula has set boarding records of its own each of the past five years. It grew nearly 12% last year to 848,000 (Billings finished with 883,000). This year MSO is up another 9.2%, even while navigating through terminal traffic jams at peak times in the summer. A major $110 million terminal rebuild is still two years from completion.
“It was a rough summer for us,” Jensen admitted. “Operationally, our building is much smaller today than it was a year ago, so trying to operate in less space and dealing with more passengers and flights is a challenge. Our growth is capped because we don’t have the physical space to handle more passengers or park more airplanes and cars.”
That doesn’t mean Missoula’s numbers will drop while the new terminal is completed, he said. They’re just not expected to grow as fast.
The good news is the terminal project is on time and on budget.
"We’re feeling good where we’re at both financially and construction-wise,” he said.
For the fifth consecutive quarter, Missoula boasts the lowest domestic airfares in Montana, according to a Department of Transportation report released last week. Fares averaged $400 at MSO for the period of April, May and June, up from $386 last winter. Bozeman and Kalispell closed the gap to $407 and $409, respectively, while Billings continued to lag $35 to $40 behind Missoula at $439.
Nearly all of Montana’s largest airports are expanding. Kalispell is approved to start next year on an almost $100 million project to expand its terminal. Billings broke ground last month on a $55 million expansion over the next four years. In Bozeman/Belgrade, work began in April on a $27 million project to add 70,000 square feet to the concourse.
By and large, Billings and Missoula don't compete for the same air travelers.
“I suspect for the next few years we’ll probably be neck and neck,” Jensen said. “It’s completely possible at some point in the future, Kalispell will exceed both of us, having a national park and a major ski destination in its backyard.”