Glacier Park International Airport’s Little City

By Beacon Staff

In the little city of Glacier Park International Airport, self-sufficiency is vital.

There’s a police and fire department, a team of maintenance men and groundskeepers, electricians, merchandise shops, food vendors, an interconnected system of tenants, administrators, rental properties and, in the outer boundaries of the airport’s property, there’s even farming.

“It’s a tremendously complex system,” said Rob Ratkowski, the airport’s deputy director. “We tell people it’s a little city.”

As one of Montana’s biggest airports, Glacier Park International Airport has undergone major changes over the past decade as it adapts to a rapidly growing population base and the region’s ever-expanding reputation as a tourist destination. It no longer resembles the small hometown airport where almost everybody seems to know each other. A handful of years ago, the airport used to have about 70,000 paying customers passing through its doors annually. Today that number is closer to 200,000.

For some in the community, the large crowds and overall expansion are signs that the airport has lost its small-town appeal. Airport Director Cindi Martin said she has heard these concerns often. While she understands the worries, Martin said the changes are necessary to keep up with growth and because many are mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration. The airport is part of a nationally integrated plan and governed accordingly, Martin said.

One major project is scheduled for this summer: resurfacing 8,000 feet of runway. The airport will close down Tuesdays through Thursdays for four weeks in August while crews work 24 hours a day to complete the job.

“The system just grows and changes all the time,” Martin said. “We have to work within a regulatory box and a bureaucracy.”

But in the face of constant evolution, daily life at the airport remains steadily consistent and always busy. A good way to get a glimpse into the airport’s inner workings is to hang out with the ever-moving Phil Timm. He’s the fire chief of this town and overseer of all maintenance. And, of course, in the event of an accident, Timm’s fire crew is there in an instant.

The thousands of people who regularly pass through the airport most likely will never see Timm, but his influence is everywhere. There is nothing more important than safety at an airport and at Glacier Park International Airport it starts with Timm. When he’s not working, he’s on call – airport operation is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week job.

Timm and his crew do daily inspections of the 1,500-acre property, driving around on the runway and dirt roads when the pavement ends. They make sure all the lights function and do a variety of other safety procedures, including making sure the runway is unobstructed, which largely consists of picking up every piece of debris they see.

“We put hundreds of miles on this car in a week without ever leaving the fence,” Timm said.

The 9,000-by-150-foot runway is enough to keep any crew busy, especially in the winter. A runway needs to be clear of ice and snow at all times, so workers, using 24-foot-wide plows and thousands of pounds of ice-removal chemicals, labor night and day throughout the cold Montana months. Last winter, the crew used 25,000 pounds of de-icing chemicals and 25,000 gallons of diesel for maintenance.

Throughout the year, Timm and his workers patrol the fields – some of which have leased-out crops – surrounding the runway, making sure no coyotes have dug a hole under the fence or any sly foxes are on the prowl. Animals aren’t friends of busy runways.

Birds are especially discouraged. January’s well-documented Hudson River plane crash in New York was caused by a bird strike. Largely for this reason, airport authorities are planning to get rid of a couple small groves of trees that have become home to shelter-seeking pheasants and other feathered visitors. Mowing the property’s sprawling fields is also a huge chore, as federal regulations mandate certain grass heights depending on the runway’s proximity.

Of the 1,500 acres the airport owns, 900 are located within a tall fence. The other 600, surrounding the fenced-off property, were purchased to discourage subdivisions. People who move into a house too close to a loud airport often end up regretting their decision. It is a reflection of the foresight and planning that Martin, the airport director, said is crucial as the airport continues its growth.

While Martin’s vision often extends to multiple years in the future, she keeps constant tabs on the present. She is bracing for an expected decrease in plane traffic this summer as the economy continues to take its toll on travel budgets. But the airport will adapt, as its has done over the years. Martin has full faith in her capable staff.

“We do an awful lot with very few people,” Martin said.

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