Earlier this month, Glacier Park International Airport added new flight services from American Airlines, with direct routes to Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago planned for this summer.
With that deal, American Airlines became the fifth airline to fly into the Flathead via GPIA, which is more than double the number from just 10 years ago when there were only two airlines providing four direct flights out of the valley. It’s good news for the airport, which saw record passenger numbers in 2018, and has plans to expand in order to continue providing optimal service.
“Everything worked out here this year,” GPIA Director Rob Ratkowski said. “We had a good year financially and operationally. Without a doubt, we’ve got the best team running the airport that we ever have.”
Adding airlines, increasing direct routes, and working on upcoming plans of expansion are successes for the airport, but Ratkowski said it’s all due to a healthy relationship with local nonprofit Glacier AERO.
“They are the voice of the community’s interest in air service,” Ratkowski said.
Glacier AERO, which stands for Airline Enhancement and Retention Outreach, started in 2014 as a group of business leaders in the valley who wanted to work on the issue of expensive and limited air travel in the Flathead.
The main benefit a group like AERO can bring to the airport is fundraising capabilities, Ratkowski said. Regulations preclude the airport from raising money the way AERO does, and the group’s cash has been integral in growing air service here. With its funds, AERO gives prospective airlines a minimum revenue guarantee for a route, meaning if it’s unfruitful, the airline won’t take the financial hit and AERO will pay for it.
GPIA and AERO have attracted Alaska, Allegiant, Delta, United, and American airlines to the airport while adding direct flights to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, and Dallas/Fort Worth.
This year, Glacier AERO teamed up with Montana West Economic Development so MWED could handle fundraising for the group year round with a focus on increasing flights and seats in and out of the Flathead during the shoulder seasons.
Since MWED has gotten involved, Glacier AERO has raised $140,000 in eight months, Kim Morisaki of MWED said.
“This community wants better connectivity year round,” Morisaki said. “We’re building just what we need to in order to achieve this.”
Tourism is a considerable part of the flight demand, Morisaki said, but the business community in the Flathead is looking for flights to major airport hubs throughout the year so they can continue conducting business in cost-effective ways.
In the case of the new flights with American Airlines, Glacier AERO didn’t need to provide the minimum revenue guarantee, Dylan Boyle of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau and chairperson of Glacier AERO said.
Instead, AERO provides marketing support for the flights; these efforts have seen considerable success over the last five years in Chicago, where AERO first launched its efforts to secure a direct winter flight with United.
“We’ve seen good performance on those flights,” Boyle said. “Now we’re able to target the shoulder seasons.”
The new year will be dedicated to marketing the new American Airlines direct flights, Boyle said, and Morisaki said there are no plans to ease up on the gas while the airport begins its major expansion project.
Ratkowski compared the upcoming years to open heart surgery in that the airport is going to be under construction while still operating at full capacity. This year was the biggest challenge to the airport’s efficiencies yet, with double-digit percentage increases in passenger numbers each month of 2018 over the same time last year.
July and August brought nearly 200,000 people through the airport, compared to about 173,000 over the same two months in 2017. For context, just five years earlier in 2013, 397,000 people passed through the airport over the entire year.
“For a community of this size, we have fantastic air service,” Ratkowski said.
GPIA is also headed into the design phase of its Master Plan update, which should include expansion of gates and waiting areas among its changes. Preliminary designs should start in January, and GPIA is working with Mead & Hunt out of Portland on the work. The out-of-state firm is contracting with local firms, including CTA Architects, Big Sky Public Relations, Robert Peccia and Associates, and Alpine Geotechnical.
“We wanted a local connection on this project,” Ratkowski said.
Throughout 2019, the airport should have a better idea of how the phases of expansion will work, he said, and the administration and board of directors will have to revalidate all the usage statistics to ensure they’re accounting for all of the growth and need.
All of this work goes to combat the misperception that it’s difficult to get to the Flathead, because while it may have been more difficult in years past, Glacier AERO and GPIA are working to make sure it only gets more accessible and affordable while maintaining safety and efficiency.
“We take our role here seriously and we do our best to represent the community’s interest,” Ratkowski said.