Glacier Park and Airport Return to Record-Setting Traffic

GNP and GPIA are experiencing a full recovery, officials said at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitor Bureau luncheon

By Maggie Dresser
Travelers exit Glacier Park International Airport on July 19, 2019. Beacon file photo

Since Glacier Park International Airport’s (GPIA) traffic dropped 98% in March and April of 2020, the Kalispell airport has made a complete recovery by returning to record-setting traffic and is slated for the largest terminal expansion in its history, while adding 100,000 more airline seats this summer.

“We are anticipating a record year at the airport,” GPIA Director Rob Ratkowski said at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon on June 15.

Starting in January, Ratkowski received inquires from three new airlines, including Sun Country Airlines, JetBlue and Frontier Airlines, interested in adding seasonal flights at GPIA, while multiple existing airlines also added flights. The additions created 100,000 more available seats and Ratkowski suspects there will be 400,000 enplanements by the end of 2021, up from the record 356,000 in 2019.

“I want to underscore that one new airline at the airport is kind of a big deal,” Ratkowski said. “So the fact that in a 90-day period, we got three new airlines, that leads me to use words like remarkable.”

Ratkowski says Montana is leading the nation in airline recovery and GPIA outpaced the state.

“We probably had the best recovery as far as airports go in the country, if not, probably the top five,” he said.

When GPIA’s traffic numbers returned to comparable numbers from 2019 this past September, airports around the country were still 60% to 80% down. In Kalispell, this past February through May have seen record-setting numbers.

Now that the airport has recovered, the $100 million terminal expansion is back in motion after the pandemic paused it, as officials are working to grow the airport from 75,000 square feet to 210,000 square feet in preparation for the next 20 years.

“We really do need to build a church for Easter Sunday and that’s why the building is going to be so big,” Ratkowski said. “We’ve got congestion, we’re testing the limits of our capacity, our revenue is essentially capped, we have shared gates, logistical issues, we’re short on parking and there are delays. Those are things we’re trying to solve with this project.”

Crews started utility work this spring and phase one of the project will begin at the end of June on the west end of the building. Phase two will begin in summer of 2023 and the entire expansion will be completed in fall 2024.

In addition to square footage, the expansion will also provide “architectural flair,” with glass, wood, steel and stone building materials and escalators.

“This may be the first set of escalators in the Flathead Valley,” Ratkowski said.

GPIA’s uptick in traffic in recent years is also a reflection of the visitation spike in Glacier National Park, where officials implemented a pilot ticket entry system this year.

Glacier Park officials are busy preparing for a record summer, and Public Affairs Officer Gina Kerzman says there were 2% more visitors this May than in the same month in 2019, with record numbers between January and May this year.

In anticipation of the busy summer and construction traffic at the West Glacier entrance, the reservation system will manage congestion and park officials hope it will provide a better experience for visitors.

“How do we get people in the park and be able to experience it and enjoy it without getting into a fist fight over a parking spot on Logan Pass?” Kerzman said. “We’re seeing an increase in calls for law enforcement assistance.”

In its first year, the ticketed entry system is still in its learning stages for both park employees and visitors, and Kerzman says about 20% to 25% of vehicles show up to the entrances without tickets. But based on other park data, Kerzman expects those numbers to trend downward.

While Montana is generally free of COVID restrictions in most areas, the park is still in a “COVID bubble,” which is impacting operations. Shuttle operations will also be ticketed with a reduction in stops.

In normal years, there are two staff members in employee housing bedrooms, but it’s limited to one staff member this year. The lack of staff is limiting campground and east side boating operations, with St. Mary and Rising Sun campgrounds on the east side closed, and officials recently made the difficult decision to close Avalanche Campground on the west side, too.

“We wanted to maximize our staff housing and other operations in the St. Mary area,” said Pete Webster, the acting superintendent for Glacier National Park. “We were intending to open Avalanche but for a number of different reasons, housing for one, the availability of our seasonal workforce came up short.”

As park officials work to deal with limited operations in a chaotic summer, Webster hopes Glacier Park will be more manageable with the ticketed entry system as the season moves forward.

“Managing access is not to limit visitation; it’s to have (visitation) be managed in some facet,” Webster said.

For Glacier National Park updates, visit www.nps.gov/glac.