After Glacier Park International Airport first started flying in folks from around the country to explore the northwestern corner of Montana, it took 46 years for the airport to reach 100,000 passengers a year.
Getting to 200,000 passengers annually took a quarter of the time, according to GPIA Director Rob Ratkowski. Within 10 years of reaching 100,000 passengers, GPIA hit 200,000 passengers a year, and the next milestone — 300,000 passengers annually — looks to be just a few months away, only four years after reaching 200,000 passengers.
“We’re increasing at an exponential rate,” Ratkowski said. “It would not surprise me if we broke 300,000 this year.”
Summer is already the busiest time of year in the Flathead, with tourists and locals alike hitting the roads and trails. But 2018 is proving to be a year of unprecedented growth for the airport, with the total number of passengers flying in and out of GPIA up 22 percent from last June.
In June, GPIA saw 31,357 travelers board their flights and welcomed 36,178 people as they debarked. In stark terms, that’s 12,281 more bodies in the airport than in June 2017, with a 20 percent increase on passengers boarding and 24 percent increase on debarking passengers.
“There’s no doubt the building is getting crowded,” Ratkowski said. “If you come down here on a Saturday afternoon, there’s lots and lots of people in the building.”
And it’s not just the summer months. Year to date, passenger numbers are up 18 percent over 2017, with double-digit percentage increases in each month over the previous year.
Ratkowski said increased airline confidence in this market has led to the higher numbers. United Airlines has added more capacity into the market with more seats and flights, he said, even bleeding over into the shoulder seasons. Delta Airlines has also started sending larger aircraft on routes here, allowing for more capacity.
Last August saw the airport’s historic high for a month of passengers with 44,000 people. Ratkowski said the airport was designed to hold peak-capacity levels of people at all times, meaning it could see 44,000 every month year-round and continue to function.
This year could be the year they bump that number to 50,000, he said.
More passengers and more airplane seats going more places has been the goal of local nonprofit Glacier AERO since its inception. As an organization, AERO works with local businesses and business interests to fundraise for minimum-revenue guarantees for airlines willing to branch out and start serving the area.
For example, AERO was integral in securing daily United flights to Chicago starting in winter 2014-2015 because the group had funds to cover the costs of the route, so even if the route proved unpopular or untenable, the airline wouldn’t lose money due to the minimum-revenue guarantee.
Now, the Chicago flight runs daily in the summer, too, and Dylan Boyle, chair of Glacier AERO, said United is going to extend those flights through Oct. 3 without the revenue guarantee.
“They’re seeing those numbers and they’re gaining increasing confidence in our market, and they have been adding flights,” Boyle said.
United also flew nonstop flights to LAX in June without a revenue guarantee, which Boyle said has never happened before.
“Now they’re building on that service in those other seasons,” he said.
When Glacier AERO doesn’t have to put up the minimum revenue guarantee, it frees up those funds to pursue more expansion, Boyle said. Already, the group is looking into potential new markets and speaking with airlines about the opportunities here.
The group is also now working with Montana West Economic Development, and MWED will handle the fundraising aspect for Glacier AERO, meaning the group can build out to a yearly fundraising campaign.
“The goal for us is to have daily and year-round service,” Boyle said.
GPIA plans to host a public open house in August to discuss the airport’s master plan update, the process for which should be wrapped up by the end of the year, Ratkowski said.
Within the plan, the airport planned for growth, roughly 2 to 3 percent a year, and 5 percent on the high side, not increases in 20-percent chunks.
“It’s definitely something we need to keep in mind as we move forward with this master plan,” Ratkowski said. “Who could’ve ever anticipated this?”
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