Glacier Park International Airport is growing up fast. Sheets of plywood surround an expanded security checkpoint still under construction. Airline ticket counters have been moved and overhauled.
In the area outside Airport Director Cindi Martin’s office, a copy of New York magazine sits on an end table. People are flying to the Flathead, from New York and beyond. Added non-stop flights to and from three major cities are expected to nearly double the number of daily passengers this summer. “On a Saturday in June, you’re not going to want to be here,” Martin said wryly.
She, in fact, welcomes the traffic. The airport stands to gain from added customers. So do those who benefit from tourism, such as hotel and restaurant employees.
But another business sector could get a boost as well, one that needs some good news: housing.
Developers that build, and realtors that sell second homes to out-of-state buyers now have the benefit of touting easy access to much of the country in their sales pitch. While Montana has mostly sidestepped the recent downturn in the housing market, the added access to the Flathead Valley should cause an up tick in second-home sales.
“It’s huge,” Paul Johannsen said about the flights. “Montana is not necessarily an easy place to get to from major metropolitan areas. When people are selecting a vacation home the ease of getting to it is a big consideration.”
Johannsen is the managing member at The Homestead at Whitefish, a 1,400-acre spread of land sold in 20-acre parcels, most to second-home buyers. Now he can market the valley to those who fly out of Chicago, Atlanta and Denver. All three cities will have nonstop flights to and from the area through the summer months. The Denver connection is year-round.
With the expansion, the majority of Flathead flyers will have fewer layovers, which is attractive because “if it takes a traveler more than two stops, then they’re not going,” Martin said.
Those travelers, up to 1,400 a day, should have a ripple effect on the economy. Right now, the majority of visitors to the Flathead Valley come from nearby markets, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President Joe Unterreiner said. Opening up the area to several more, especially in the Southeast, is good for business and government coffers.
“Second-home buyers pay property taxes and historically are not large consumers of public services such as schools and roads,” Unterreiner said. “They’re paying their fair share.”
Now Realtors, like Tom Brown, will have more leverage when a buyer is considering where to buy a vacation home. The co-owner of Trails West Eagle Bend Realty in Big Fork, said, “There aren’t many things that have an impact on the second-home market more than having affordable direct flights.”
While discount airlines, such as Southwest, haven’t yet arrived at Glacier, the airport’s director said getting the new flights was quite a feat. She said carriers – many still learning from the mistakes that plunged some into bankruptcy or bankruptcy protection in recent years – are sticklers about what flights they add and where.
The “shoulder seasons” are still slow, Martin said, that’s why many of these added flights are only for the summer. “We a have hard time justifying more flights to carriers when they’d be flying with empty seats.”
Some in the local housing and hospitality industries, however, are already clamoring for even more air traffic.
“We’re very excited about the (new flights),” Janet Gideon, director of sales at Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish, said. “We just met with the airport to talk about increasing the size of the planes and trying to get seasonal flights to come year round.”
She said Lodge employees are actively marketing the new flights to increase demand.
For his part, Johannsen said he would like to see direct flights to the San Francisco Bay area.
Sometimes airports can’t grow up fast enough.
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