Airport Master Plan Update Enters Final Stages

Expansion plans in the works, with design work expected to begin early next year

By Molly Priddy
Travelers arrive at Glacier Park International Airport. Beacon file photo

As the Flathead Valley continues to boom and grow, the essential transportation hub of Glacier Park International Airport is trying to keep pace.

By the end of the year, the yearlong GPIA Master Plan update project should be ready for the design phase, GPIA Director Rob Ratkowski said, with the idea of expanding the building to accommodate the demand for service.

“This is going to be an expansion of the footprint that we have now, we’re not going to be breaking tons of new ground,” Ratkowski said. “It’s a little bit of everything.”

The master plan has been under construction for a year, with the airport’s board of directors deciding in September to go ahead with the design-consultant selection process.

At this point in the process, the master plan is still a draft, but the board has identified the preferred alternative for the development of the building. The goal of the project is to be able to accommodate and handle the sheer amount of passengers traveling through the airport during the summer’s busy months.

This year, GPIA set passenger records in July and August, with 97,149 total passengers in July and 92,742 in August. Those are double-digit increases on already the biggest months for the airport, with a 12 percent increase in July and 10 percent in August. The last time the building expanded to accommodate increased travelers was 20 years ago, Ratkowski said.

“Obviously, on our peaks we’ve got a lot of people in the building, and my board has on a preliminary level decided that we want to continue the excellent level of service even on the peak times,” he said.

This means that through the expansion they hope to add more space to the ticketing lobby in the front section of the airport, while also adding more space to the “hold rooms,” or waiting areas at the plane gates beyond security.

“What we really have now is three hold rooms to serve five airplane parking positions,” Ratkowski said.

Already, the airport has tried to make due with what it had. What is now the security and hold room used to be a big open lobby for the public, Ratkowski said, but that new hold room serves multiple gates.

“We’ve modified the building basically every way we could within the existing footwork to make it work,” he said.

The proposed expansion would add two more gates to the airport’s upstairs section, which would also add room at baggage claim.

Ratkowski said the board chose this expansion option as opposed to leaving the existing building alone and adding a whole new south wing, because just adding more square footage alone won’t do what the airport wants.

To pay for the expansion, GPIA will use both entitlement and discretionary funds from the Federal Aviation Administration, the airport’s cash reserves, and private financing.

As it stands now, the plan is with the FAA awaiting approval, Ratkowski said, which he expects to come through by the end of the month. With that approval, the project goes from updating the plan to the first stages of a building project.

“We’re going to start preliminary design probably in the first quarter of next year,” Ratkowski said. “The design is going to flesh out the actual details of the expansion.”

Ratkowski said that even with a building that hasn’t seen an expansion since the 1990s and record-level passenger loads, the staff inside the building has helped keep the current situation workable and doable.

“The good news is the people and the building performed well even at those levels,” he said. “We did not really see any points of failure even with that maximum (passenger volume), kudos to our staff here and throughout the airport.”

For more information on GPIA’s Master Plan, visit www.iflyglacier.com/business-development/master-plan.

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