Project to Double Size of Airport Terminal Moves Forward

Glacier Park International Airport’s $100 million expansion project gets green light from airport authority, expected to begin September 2020

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

Glacier Park International Airport will undergo nearly $100 million in expansions and changes in the next several years, with new gates, waiting areas, security lines and more planned for the major overhaul.

Last week, the Flathead Municipal Airport Authority authorized the preliminary terminal expansion concept, a plan that has been in the concept and research phase for several years now.

The planned expansion will be the largest in the airport’s history, according to Airport Director Rob Ratkowski.

“This project is going to expand all the functional areas of the airport,” Ratkowski said in an interview.

The terminal will more than double in size, and there will be larger circulation areas, more jet bridges and hold rooms, a full-service restaurant and bar option for passengers beyond security, and the return of the “meeter-greeter” lobby.

It’s a project that has one eye on meeting the current needs at the busy GPIA, while keeping the other eye on the future needs of the facility. By expanding the heart of the airport, it allows for future expansions by positioning the core of the airport to allow for extending out to the north and south if needed in the future.

“This is a project for the next 20 years at this building,” Ratkowski said. “It’s a generational project.”

Already, the airport is feeling constraints. Passenger volumes have more than doubled in the last 20 years, and the airport’s average annual growth has been double that of the national average for airports.

Five years ago, GPIA had about 452,000 people stream through the building. Last year, there were more than 612,000 people, and more are expected as the valley continues to grow and the airport continues to secure more air service.

The cost is expected to hover at about $100 million but will be subject to change as the project comes to life, Ratkowski said. Funds will come from saved money, loans and federal grants. Air carriers will have some financial responsibility for increasing capacity, and the mill levy supporting the airport will remain unchanged.

“There’s no question this is an expensive project,” Ratkowski said. “Our goal in planning this is to keep the future growth of the airport in mind.”

Most of the cost is expected to come from doubling the main terminal building’s footprint. Where the holding area for the gates on the first level is now will be the boundary of the lobby, giving the public a chance to look at the planes and the runway through the window.

Proportional expansion now is necessary for future projects, Ratkowski said.

Work on the expansion will take place over the next several years and in three phases, with each phase expected to take a year. First, airport officials expect to start expanding the airport’s north end in September of 2020, then move to the core area, then the south end the final year.

“The public will see new space, if the schedule holds, maybe the first quarter of 2022,” Ratkowski said.

Mead & Hunt, Inc., a specialty airport planning and design firm, is providing technical, design and planning guidance, and is working with local firms as well. The next steps toward expansion are finalizing design concepts and contracts, selecting a contractor and securing financing. The community will be involved in the process with regular updates throughout the next 18 months, Ratkowski said.

Ratkowski said the work will inevitably take place during the busiest times of the year, but the staff at the airport are excited about the expansion and intend to “keep the level of service high during the project.”

“Everyone sees what’s happening here,” Ratkowski said, looking at the busy security area in GPIA. “Everyone acknowledges it’s time for a project here.”