As the state’s tourism office continues to plaster inviting images of Montana on billboards across the U.S. and local businesses strive to compete in the global marketplace, attention is circling Glacier Park International Airport and the vital role of air service in the Flathead Valley.
This corner of the state, home to popular amenities and flourishing companies but detached from the interstate, relies heavily on carriers to usher travelers in and out. That counts not only tourists but business associates and vacationing residents who desire to use GPI as their primary hub instead of driving for hours to the region’s other major runways in Spokane or Missoula.
The local airport enjoyed increased travel the past three years and achieved a milestone in 2012, with 384,023 passengers. Yet many business and community leaders see an opportunity — and need — for more.
“Increasing air travel to the Flathead and making it more affordable has been the top priority for my chamber since I got here three years ago,” said Kevin Gartland, executive director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce.
“We’ve made some gradual improvement since 2010,” but limited air service can be a persistent barrier to economic development, he added.
This reality is becoming more apparent now that a feasibility study is underway for a potentially massive convention center and entertainment complex, tentatively named Two Elk Lodge. According to preliminary designs, the ambitious development could feature a convention center with room for 2,000 people, a 150-room resort hotel, a 120-seat restaurant, a retail shopping plaza, an outdoor amphitheater and other features.
But could the Flathead Valley cater to something that big? Are there enough frequent flights and reasonably priced fares that could feed visitors into the Two Elk Lodge?
“(The developers) need to see more air service in this area,” said Gartland, who has been involved in discussions with groups working with the project’s unnamed investor.
“They will tell us it’s feasible if we have more air service.”
That sentiment also rings true in Kalispell, where banks, manufacturers and other businesses are eager to expand commercial services and reduce steep fares.
“It’s a high priority, both from a tourism and general business standpoint,” Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President Joe Unterreiner said.
The goal of enticing more carriers and reducing airfare at GPI is nothing new, but the campaign has recently gained momentum on several fronts.
A new valley-wide collaboration called AERO — short for Airline Enhancement Regional Organization — is assembling as a private entity that can help GPI evolve, specifically through fundraising, similar to independent organizations that provide support to Glacier National Park.
The AERO group is still forming with members from the surrounding communities. It’s expected to begin initial work next month by meeting with the airport’s consultation board to hash out a strategy.
The group is expected to play an integral role in expanding air service by raising funds that could be used as collateral and leverage during negotiations with carriers.
In today’s industry, airlines are wary of risking flights to small markets that are not guaranteed to be profitable. A group like AERO could establish a backup fund for carriers if ridership numbers fall short during the year. This could also influence carriers to reduce airfare, which could increase ridership.
“Bottom line is it’s a benefit to everybody here. Lower fares and more frequent fares to better connected destinations improve life for all of us,” Gartland said. “But we’re not going to improve things without making some commitment ourselves.”
Airport Director Cindi Martin, in her seventh year managing GPI, echoed Gartland’s assessment and described the reality of the airline industry.
“It really is dependent on the community to support that service once it comes in,” she said. “That service could come in tomorrow and if the community doesn’t support it, it would go away. If a carrier doesn’t see profitability then they won’t continue providing service. It comes down to profitability. Their service is not a charity, it’s a business.”
Martin’s hands are tied when it comes to alleviating the carriers’ risk of betting on the Flathead Valley as a viable market. By law, the airport cannot provide backup funds that offset carriers’ losses, which underscores the value of a group like AERO.
“I’m excited. It’s going to be great to have that AERO group on board,” she said. “It really is going to take a village to get some new service to markets that are on the fence that don’t have strong performance numbers.”
She added, “We are optimistic. We work continuously, not only with incumbent carriers but also to identify new carriers.”
Kellie Danielson, CEO of Montana West Economic Development and the Flathead County Economic Development Authority, is helping organize AERO.
She considers the Flathead blessed to have an international airport as healthy as GPI. But there’s always room to improve and grow, and in turn the valley’s economy will follow, Danielson said.
“One of the factors people and businesses evaluate in relocating to an area is airport access and service. While the current service from GPI is appreciated, it is hard work to retain the current service and determine solutions to improve service,” she said.
“The airport board of directors and the airport director have actively pursued and continue to pursue opportunities to broaden the geographic reach of air service. With the consolidation of the airline industry service has decreased nationally, especially to smaller airports, the industry’s business plans focus on flights between metropolitan areas and hubs. It is all about filling up the seats where the demand is highest.”
One of the primary goals of AERO will be to focus on helping carriers during the quieter winter and shoulder seasons.
At GPI, the summer season pays for itself. Roughly half of the total passengers arrive and depart every year between June and September. Last year, more than 190,000 people arrived and departed from the airport in that four-month span.
On the eve of the summer travel season, airport administrators unveiled their four-month $2 million remodel. A large crowd toured the newly renovated terminal on May 16 as part of an event hosted by the valley’s chambers of commerce. Among other changes, large sections of the terminal, which was built 15 years ago, are now more spacious and modernized with an appealing facelift.
The changes were in response to rising passenger needs and pre-9/11 infrastructure.
The airport, the fourth largest in Montana, has experienced continued growth since its inception in 1942. Flathead County created an independent public agency, Flathead Municipal Airport Authority, to operate the 1,500-acre site in 1974.
Ridership ascended to record levels in 2005 but dropped more than 14 percent in 2009 following the onset of the Great Recession. Levels have climbed at least 5 percent every year since and surpassed the 2005 mark last year.
This year’s activity at GPI is on pace to surpass records yet again. The number of passengers in April was nearly 13 percent higher than last year, according to statistics from the Montana Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division. For the year to date, air travel in the valley is up almost 7 percent.
As a whole, air travel across the state this year is up less than 1 percent.
In Montana, the big three airports are Billings, Bozeman and Missoula. Billings totaled 879,934 passengers last year and Bozeman had 867,117, while Missoula saw 604,788. Great Falls was just behind Kalispell, with 380,111.
This year both Billings and Missoula have seen 1 percent declines in passengers, according to MDT statistics. Great Falls is down 6.3 percent while Bozeman is up 4.3 percent.
It’s no coincidence that Bozeman and the Flathead Valley are seeing a continued stream of travelers.
The Montana Office of Tourism has devoted ad promotions in recent years to advertising the state’s amenities and adventure opportunities, commonly referencing landmarks like Glacier National Park, Whitefish Mountain Resort and Yellowstone National Park. This year’s $8 million marketing push, announced recently, is targeting major cities like Chicago, Salt Lake City and Seattle.
“There are unique aspects to a lot of the communities here, as far as why we’re seeing folks flying in and out of the airports,” said Steve Engebrecht, a civil engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration office in Helena.
“Kalispell obviously has Glacier Park and Flathead Lake. Bozeman is largely the same with the university and Yellowstone and Big Sky Resort. That drives a lot of traffic for them.”
The combination of rising tourism and economic recovery has already led to more planes flying over the valley.
GPI has seen constant growth in its current routes to major cities like Salt Lake City, Denver, Minneapolis and Seattle, according to airport officials. There are now two weekly flights to Atlanta.
“We’ve come a long way in just a few years, despite the economy,” Martin said.
“We were pleased to see that our service was able to grow. We do our very best on a regular basis communicating the current demand to potential carriers but also a growing demand for either new markets or increased service to our existing markets.”
Martin said airport officials are negotiating with a few “strong markets” that are showing encouraging potential for coming to Kalispell.
A Delta Airlines executive at Sen. Jon Tester’s recent business seminar announced that the carrier was seriously looking at direct flights between Kalispell and Los Angeles. Allegiant Air has expressed interest in a similar route in the past and in the meantime is preparing to restart its seasonal flights to Oakland.
“They know there’s opportunity here,” Gartland said.
The high percentage of filled seats provides evidence. Last year on average there was just over 80 percent ridership for flights at GPI, according to airport statistics.
“That shows you there’s demand,” Gartland said.