Flying from Minnesota into Kalispell recently, Cindi Martin found herself crammed into an airplane that didn’t have enough seats for all the prospective travelers. The standby list had several people waiting behind as the plane embarked toward Northwest Montana filled to capacity.
It’s not an uncommon situation at Glacier Park International Airport these days. Fueled by a pair of new seasonal connections with major markets and the influx of summer tourists, Kalispell’s airport is bustling and poised for another banner year.
On the eve of the busiest months of the year, air travel was already up 12.5 percent, with 136,565 passengers at GPIA from January through May, according to Montana Department of Transportation statistics.
For the month of May, there were 26,915 passengers, nearly 12 percent more than in 2013. Early estimates are that the month of June will also exceed last year’s total, which was 37,687 passengers.
“We’re definitely a high-demand destination. There’s no doubt about it,” Martin, director of GPIA, said.
Statewide air travel was up 5.5 percent through May. Bozeman, the state’s largest airport, was up 6.6 percent and is also on pace for a record year.
Kalispell has seen the largest percentage spike in passengers among the state’s six largest airports, according to the MDT.
The early-season increase could foreshadow a busy summer ahead.
A year ago, the summer months of July and August — the peak of tourism season — were the largest in terms of total passengers with more than 60,000 both months.
The added boost this year is in large part due to two new seasonal flights to Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, strong markets that Martin has long hoped to connect to Kalispell.
Allegiant Airlines began operating daily flights between Kalispell and Los Angeles June 9, and Martin said she was told they have been mostly full or near capacity.
“That’s really exciting. We knew LA was a strong market for us,” Martin said. “California is a strong market for us overall, and it’s really not a surprise that those flights would be full.”
The flights continue through Aug. 23.
The second major addition at GPIA this summer, Alaska Airlines began nonstop service to and from Portland, also on June 9. The flights have similarly been frequently full or nearly full, Martin said.
“It’s been a busy flight in and out,” she said.
Martin said the goal is to secure the Portland flights as a year-round service, which could be a viable option.
GPIA has a new partner that’s rallying support for securing more flights with major airlines. The valley-wide group known as AERO — a nonprofit named the Airline Enhancement Regional Organization — has raised nearly $300,000 in donations that could be used to leverage direct flights to major markets. The money would be used as a private guarantee for an airline and is a common practice across the U.S.
“The important thing is that with AERO we have another tool in our toolbox,” Martin said. “The summer market is very strong on its own and sells itself. And we have a very strong emerging winter market. But the carriers aren’t convinced of that.”
With the help of AERO, Martin hopes GPIA will continue its growth as a regional terminal.
“It speaks to the commitment of the businesses and community in the valley,” she said. “It’s very promising. It really does take a village because we’re competing with 400-some other airports in this country for air service.”
Another added boost in recent years is the well-known Canadian influence. Airfares in Canada are historically more expensive than in the U.S., and an increasing number of residents from up north are making the trek.
In the last three years, GPIA has seen a noticeable influx of Canadians driving to Kalispell to fly, either domestically or overseas, Martin said.
Another trend that Martin has seen is the expanding summer season. Traditionally the months of June and July were the busiest for tourists, but now it’s carrying through October, she said.
“The seasons are longer than they have been in the past,” she said.