News & Features

A Recovering Airline Industry

Passenger boardings at GPIA have seen a steady increase since April; analysis shows Montana’s airline industry is the least impacted of any state in U.S.

During nationwide lockdowns back in April, Glacier Park International Airport (GPIA) had only 21 people through the check-in on its lowest day, and Airport Director Rob Ratkowski says about half of them were crew members.

But as the summer tourist season in the Flathead has moved onward and the region remains an attractive destination in the middle of the pandemic, July passenger numbers have grown to about 1,027 per day, about half of what GPIA saw last July.

Over the whole month of July, the airport saw 29,831 boardings compared to 60,470 the year before in the same month, and Ratkowski says August is seeing even higher numbers.

While the passenger numbers are still only half of what they normally are this time of year, they’ve grown significantly since the spring, which Ratkowski says is likely due to the uptick in leisure flights. But once the tourist season winds down after Labor Day, it’s uncertain what numbers the airport will see.

“We’re looking at what happens over the next 90 days closely because the market here and across the country is supported by leisure traffic,” Ratkowski said. “Everybody’s going on vacation and we’re curious to see what happens when the summer winds down and we’re seeing a trickle.”

Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN), where many tourists fly into on their way to visit Yellowstone National Park, has also seen a significant increase in air travel since the lockdown. This past April, BZN saw 1,417 boarding passengers compared to 42,118 in July. The Bert Mooney Airport in Butte saw 141 passengers in April and 1,293 in July.

And while the airline industry as a whole is beginning to recover, some states, including Montana, are bouncing back quicker than others.

According to a new analysis by Airlines for America, Montana has been the least impacted state, with 25% fewer flights offered in July 2020 compared to July 2019. New York is the most impacted with 86% fewer flights, while the national average is 50% fewer.

In April, the national average was down 96%, a level not seen since before the jet age in the 1950s, according to the analysis.

Ratkowski speculates that Montana’s high volume of vacation passengers contributes to the less severe impact to the airline industry in the state. However, he hasn’t noticed as many business passengers flying.

“I think it’s just that leisure market and people having the perception that Montana is a much safer place to be in,” Ratkowski said.

But while Montana’s airline industry is seeing less of an impact than in other states, the pandemic has stalled the GPIA’s $100 million expansion, which was originally scheduled to begin in this summer.

Since the current passenger numbers aren’t causing tight congestion or crowding at the airport, Ratkowski says airport officials will wait until numbers are consistent with numbers from 2017, which saw 270,451 boarding passengers for the entire year.

“That’s the year we really started to feel crowding in the building,” he said. “As long as we’re comfortable with the numbers, we don’t want to push the cost on air carriers when their industry is decimated.”

Once the airport recovers to numbers comparable to those in 2017, GPIA will begin expanding the airport from its current 75,000 square-foot space to 210,000 square feet, which will include more passenger space, larger checkpoint and circulating areas, and holding rooms.

“It’s literally everything,” Ratkowski said.

The project should take three to four years to complete once it starts and will set the airport up for the next 20 years.

Prior to the pandemic, GPIA was seeing record boarding numbers, with 356,297 boarding passengers in 2019, up from 307,281 in 2018. Since 2014, passenger volume has grown 33%.

But in the meantime, airport officials are working to keep airline travel as safe as possible. While the Montana National Guard is no longer conducting screenings at GPIA, masks are required in the building and on airplanes and custodial staff is disinfecting as much as possible.

“It’s difficult to socially distance at an airport,” Ratkowski said. “We encourage people to do that and try to block off seats. Other than that, we’re pretty functional.”

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