Amid a late evening rain shower on July 1 that provided a much-needed respite from last week’s heat wave, Flight 2345 by JetBlue Airways direct from New York City’s JFK airport touched down at Glacier Park International Airport (GPIA) between lightning strikes.
The plane, “Betty Blue,” landed to fanfare — two fire engines provided a water cannon show on the tarmac — and the 147 passengers disembarked to balloons, cupcakes, gift bags and prizes earned from in-air competitions. One passenger, singer-songwriter Jack Gladstone of the Blackfeet Nation, had been flown out to New York the day before to play at the flight’s departure as well as on the aircraft.
The pomp and circumstance was in celebration of the inaugural flight by JetBlue Airways to GPIA, the second direct route from Kalispell to the Big Apple, after American Airlines added a seasonal flight to LaGuardia earlier this year.
“Most people didn’t know this was an inaugural flight, they were just taking it because they wanted to come to Montana,” JetBlue Communications Manager Derek Dombroski said after he deplaned. “We were excited to see it was at full capacity and we made it exciting for them – they literally got huckleberry smoothies on the plane.”
JetBlue is one ofthree new airline partners that GPIA has unveiled over the last year. GPIA also began hosting Sun Country Airlines to offer a new route from Kalispell to Minneapolis/St. Paul, a twice-weekly service that will run through October. And last month Frontier began operating a thrice-weekly flight between Kalispell and Denver.
“Bringing one airline in a year is a big deal, so the fact that we had three announced within 90 days of each other, that’s pretty remarkable,” GPIA Director Rob Ratkowski said. “I think that speaks to the recovery that we’re seeing in the whole state, and our valley in particular.”
“Then you add the five routes that our incumbent carriers started in addition to that, I mean obviously we’ve exceeded our recovery,” he continued. “We’ve returned, and we are on this steep growth trajectory.”
American Airlines is one of the incumbent carriers that expanded its offerings, increasing its Kalispell service from three cities — Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago, and Los Angeles — to five, with Saturday flights to LaGuardia and Charlotte, North Carolina during the summer.Allegiant Air also added a seasonal, biweekly route to San Diego that began May 28 and will run through Aug. 18.
JetBlue is a low-cost airline based out of JFK and is one of the major airlines with pledges to achieve net-zero carbon emissions within 30 years through a combination of utilizing sustainable aviation fuel as well as buying carbon offsets for flights. In 2020, JetBlue became the first airline to achieve carbon neutrality on all domestic flights by purchasing offsets for all CO2 emissions, which airline officials say pairs well with locations such as Glacier National Park.
The airline also offers service to Bozeman, as well as similar outdoor destinations in Colorado such as Steamboat Springs.
“People want to go to wide open spaces, they want to go to Big Sky Country.” Dombroski said, mentioning possible further expansions in the Rocky Mountains, especially during winter. “We continue to see opportunities throughout our network.”
With all the additions to GPIA’s network, Ratkowski is anticipating a record year for the airport. The new carriers and routes create 100,000 more available seats and Ratkowski suspects there will be nearly 50,000 more enplanements than in 2019, which saw a record 356,000.
Monthly traffic from February to May set records, including a 32% increase in May traffic over the previous record, underscoring the need for expansion.
“I wish I could snap my fingers and bring another 100,000 square feet online in nine months,” Ratkowski said.
Plans to expand the GPIA terminal coalesced in 2017, and two months ago the Flathead Municipal Airport Authority gave final approval for phase one of construction. Phase two will begin in summer of 2023 and the entire expansion will be completed in fall 2024.
The groundbreaking, scheduled for July 13, will be the start of a three-phase, 125,000-square-foot expansion that will grow the terminal from five gates to seven, add more concessions to the gate area, including a bar and restaurant, and improve operational areas such as TSA screening checkpoints and baggage management spaces. It will also include a set of escalators, the first in Flathead County, and one of only a handful in the state.
The project is expected to cost $100 million, with funding derived from a variety of sources, including the Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration, local tax revenues, grants and federal stimulus.
Ratkowski says construction is not expected to interfere with passenger experiences throughout the busy tourist season, so even though the airport might feel crowded, it will continue to serve its purpose as the primary hub inGlacier country.
“Being that gatekeeper is our job,” Ratkowski said. “It’s what we do and we take it seriously… but the building can’t be done fast enough.”
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