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Passengers check in to their flights at the Missoula International Airport.

Just in time for the holidays: a new flight from Missoula to Seattle that promises to make for more competitive ticket prices and add to the predawn hubbub at Missoula International Airport.

Starting bright and early Saturday, Delta Air Lines will launch daily service to the Emerald City aboard either a 65-seat SkyWest Airlines’ Bombardier CRJ700 or a 76-seat CRJ900.

Scheduled departing time will be 6:15 a.m. That’s 10 minutes after rival Alaska Airlines takes off for Seattle with its 76-seat Bombardier DH-4 and the precise minute another, usually larger, Delta flight is slated to leave for Salt Lake City.

In all, five flights are due to leave Missoula between 5:40 and 7:08 a.m. on a daily basis, which figures to make for a lot of congestion in an airport that’s still a few years away from an extensive expansion.

“We’re looking at close to 500 seats departing in that hour or so time frame,” said airport director Cris Jensen. “This time of year in particular all flights are full, so they’re all going to be trying to get checked in and get through security.”

He reiterated the importance of getting to the airport early – a minimum of two hours prior to takeoff is standard but at least 90 minutes beforehand is crucial.

Jensen said all airlines have cutoff times of 30 to 45 minutes before departure, after which their computers won’t allow you to check in.

The Missoula morning crunch will start, as it does now, with a Delta flight to Minneapolis at 5:40 a.m. It’s followed by Alaska Airlines to Seattle at 6:05, the new Delta flight to Seattle and current Delta to Salt Lake City at 6:15 a.m., and United Airlines to Denver at 7:08 a.m.

Full-capacity passenger loads for the five flights add up to between 413 and 457 seats.

Jensen said the influx comes at a time when airlines like Atlanta-based Delta are sending more big airplanes to spur locations like Missoula.

“You were really looking at 50-seat airplanes up to 76,” he said. “Now it’s transitioning to more like 150-seat airplanes.”

Come Saturday, Delta is also adding a direct daily Seattle flight to and from Billings and four other cities: Edmonton, Alberta; Cancun, Mexico; Kona, Hawaii; and Orlando, Florida.

It comes at a time when the airline is adding feeder flights to beef up its Seattle hub to compete with Alaska Airlines, said blogger Nicolas Bernier.

Bernier, a regular contributor to airwaysnews.com, wrote a three-part analysis in June and July called “The Battle for Seattle: Alaska vs. Delta.”

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As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, Alaska had six Missoula-to-Seattle seats remaining for its 6:05 a.m. flight Saturday – two for $276 and four for $324. Delta had just one open on its 6:15 a.m. flight – for $629.

For the same flights one week later, Alaska had two seats for $233, while Delta had one for $443. For a month out (Jan. 19), the price was $103 on Alaska and $168 on Delta.

The Missoula airport is “kind of splitting at the seams,” Jensen said.

“That’s one of the reasons we’re really pushing to build onto or expand the existing facility. In the past, winter has not necessarily been a problem for us.” 

The expansion of gates and terminal space is slated to be completed by 2020. A consultant will be chosen in early 2016 to help with the design, and the design phase itself will start late next year. It should be an 18-month process before construction begins, Jensen said.

Parking is becoming a bigger problem as well, he added. During the past year parking lots have been expanded on an incremental basis.

For now, Jensen counseled promptness and patience for holiday air travelers. The airlines supplement their workforces at surge times, and airport staff will be working different hours starting Saturday. Jensen said he and assistant director Brian Ellestad plan to be to work by 5:30 a.m.

“Being there on time is probably the best tip,” Jensen said. “It’s the one thing that will guarantee you getting on that airplane. It’s just simply a busy time for us.”

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