Missoula airport unveils major expansion plan


MISSOULA, Mont. - Big changes could be coming to the Missoula International Airport. The Missoula County Airport Authority unveiled its $42 million expansion plan Tuesday.

Airport director Cris Jensen said plans have been in the works for about 10 years and will be completed in a series of phases. The first phase includes construction of an addition on the east side of the property. The security checkpoint will be moved to the front of the restaurant area at the existing airport to make room for a new fully functioning terminal. Once that phase is complete, airport officials will move operations into the new facility, then demolish and rebuild the existing airport. Jensen says the project will ensure that flight wait times do not change.

Airport officials say the complete structure will be more than 35,000 square feet larger than it is now and a total of three stories. Upgrades will include a passenger screening area that is twice the size of the current one with four lanes rather than three, new ticketing area, upstairs lobby, hold rooms and a larger concession space.

Jensen says the upgrades are necessary as airport traffic continues to grow. He says the Missoula airport experienced a 10 percent increase of travelers in 2016 from 2015. He hopes the expansion will ease travel for the other 750,000 passengers that come through a year.

Missoula travelers have mixed opinions. "Do I see a need for a new airport? I think it's really like a teenager growing into new slacks. You're going to grow, you're going to keep on growing and you're going to grow for the next 200 years. If it isn't needed today it will be tomorrow," said John Weigman. Colin Gaskel said he is happy with the size of the airport now. "I think Missoula International Airport is as big as it needs to be for the amount of flights it gets in and out."

Airport officials say there will be four additional gates for a total of eight gates in the new facility. They hope to give passengers more flight time and route options through adding airlines and destinations. Jensen says he recently met with Southwest Airlines and American Airlines -- two carriers that do not currently operate in Missoula.

Business development manager Dan Neuman says the original airport has been standing since the late 1950's. He says the airport's electrical and wireless circuits are all on separate systems after eleven renovations over the years. Neuman hopes the expansion will streamline all of the airports utilities.

The project is being paid for by the Federal Aviation Administration, airport user fees and airport reserves. Airport officials say you will only pay for the expansion if you use the airport or purchase an airline ticket. They say the airport will not be paid for via bond and property taxes will not increase. The FAA grant comes from an excise tax on airline tickets and the airport user fee comes from a $4.50 passenger facility charge. Both fees are already built into the price of airline tickets so airport officials say airline ticket prices should not increase.

"We don't want a project that drives the budget, we want a budget that drives the project," Jensen added.

Airport officials say the reason they are doing a complete demolition instead of a remodel is so they have room to expand in the future.

They say it's too soon to know if an expanded airport will lead to discounted ticket prices.

Developers will now move into the design phase. They expect to break ground on construction mid-2018 and complete construction in 2021.

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