‘Settling into a Normal Pattern’

Glacier Park Airport passenger numbers have dipped since last year’s pandemic rebound, but airport officials predict more steady growth

By Maggie Dresser
Glacier Park International Airport. Beacon file photo

After Glacier Park International Airport (GPIA) shattered enplanement records with more than 3,000 check-ins during a single day in July of 2021, the airport is now seeing traffic comparable to 2019 following a pandemic rebound year.

GPIA Director Rob Ratkowski says traffic this year is around 7% higher than in 2019, continuing an upward trajectory without including the previous two anomaly years.  

“2020 and 2021 were throw away years for opposite reasons,” Ratkowski said. “In 2020, the trends were down because of the pandemic and in 2021 everything came back with a vengeance. This year is settling into a normal pattern.”

This July, there were 64,526 total enplanements compared to 72,683 during the same month in 2021. In 2019, there were 60,470 enplanements in July. 

“Last year was astronomically high and this doesn’t surprise us at all,” Ratkowski said. 

As airlines nationwide struggle with labor shortages and high fuel prices, some carriers have reduced services at GPIA. JetBlue, which offered a direct route from Kalispell to JFK International Airport in New York City, did not return in 2022 after less than a year since it joined GPIA. Frontier Airlines ended its season in Kalispell early on Aug. 8. 

According to Airlines for America data released on Aug. 25, the average price of jet fuel per gallon for fiscal year 2022 was $3.26 compared to $2.01 in 2019. From 2019 to 2021, U.S. passenger airline payrolls shrank by about 47,000 full-time employees. About 70,000 jobs were added before the pandemic between 2010 and 2019.

“The carriers have been having a tough go this summer,” Ratkowski said. “That’s part of the reason that they’ve reduced capacity. They are really trying to utilize their resources efficiently.” 

GPIA has seen a 25% to 30% reduction in seats due to the cutbacks but there’s only been a 6% reduction in passenger traffic, Ratkowski said. 

In the summer of 2021, GPIA added 100,000 more airline seats and three new airline seasonal flights, including Sun Country Airlines, JetBlue and Frontier Airlines and multiple existing airlines also added flights. 

While GPIA is a seasonal airport, with far more traffic in the summer compared to the rest of the year, Ratkowski says the shoulder season numbers are higher than previous years. This April, there were 21,855 enplanements compared to 16,714 during the same month in 2019.

“Anecdotally, it seems like a lot of our new residents are traveling a lot,” Ratkowski said. “We anticipate our shoulder seasons will be strong this year. Historically, April and October are one-third of July or August and we’re seeing that trend starting to reverse.”

Holiday travel is expected to be comparable to last year, Ratkowski said, which saw 23,323 enplanements in December compared to 18,391 during the same month in 2019.

After Labor Day, when the airport schedule will see a reduction, GPIA’s construction for its $100 million expansion is expected to ramp up. The project is currently on schedule and has completed 30% of phase one after it broke ground last year. Ratkowski said crews have almost completed all the concrete work for the first phase and steel and interior work is currently in progress in the central core and northern sections, which is where the existing checkpoint and ticketing areas are. Officials hope the new checkpoint area and hold rooms will be complete by next summer. Phase two is expected to start at the end of next summer on the southern end of the airport.

Increasing tourism, business travel and overall growth in the Flathead prompted the expansion almost five years ago, which will nearly triple the airport’s square footage from 75,000 square feet to 200,000 square feet and is scheduled for completion in fall 2024. 

Additions to the airport will include expanded passenger areas, TSA screening checkpoints and baggage areas. Two gates will be added to the existing five with larger waiting areas and a bar and restaurant will be added to concessions, all of which is designed to reduce congestion. Flathead County will also gain its first escalators and the airport design will add “architectural flair” with glass, wood, steel and stone building materials.

“We’re really excited for it,” Ratkowski said. “Our numbers are still strong and there’s a need for it. It’s a good project and we’re looking forward to delivering it.”

For more information, visit www.iflyglacier.com.