Missoula Current: Set for the future: Missoula Airport unveils new $67M passenger terminal

by Martin Kidston

State and community leaders gave the new passenger terminal at Missoula Montana Airport high praise on Tuesday during a tour of the $67 million facility, where crews are racing the clock for a planned operational opening in May.

While the 22nd day of the second month of 2022 will soon be history, the new terminal and plans for Phase 2 will punctuate the future of business and leisure travel through Montana’s second largest city for decades to come.

“Our goal was to create a modern, expanded facility to prepare MSO for current and future growth,” said Adriane Beck, chair of the Missoula County Airport Authority. “We made a commitment to our tenants and the community to build a world-class facility without raising taxes or increasing tenants’ rent to pay for it.”

After years of planning, the project faced early headwinds in March 2020 when the pandemic set in. It hit the commercial aviation industry hard, including airports and their employees.

But the airport authority made a decision to push forward, and the timing proved key as Congress would soon pass a suite of rescue bills. The funding helped keep the airline industry afloat, and it provided the revenue needed to keep the terminal project on track.

“This project has benefited from Sen. Jon Tester’s support of … bills to help airports and commercial aviation weather the pandemic,” Beck said. “Sen. Tester’s support of the recent passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law will hopefully provide additional funding to make Phase 2 of our terminal expansion project possible.”

The project has received around $32 million in entitlement and discretionary funding from the Federal Aviation Administration when just $5 million in such funding was anticipated. But federal funding from the FAA isn’t possible without Congressional support.

“When all things are said and done, it’s up to communities to really utilize these dollars in ways that make sense, and that’s what’s happened here,” Tester said. “We’ve seen smart investment in infrastructure that will stand the test of time, but there’s more work to be done here.”

Come May, the new facility will replace the old terminal, which one FAA official described as a “building on top of duct tape on top of Lego’s on top of Lincoln Logs.” The new terminal includes room for 26 ticketing agents, three TSA screening lines and four jet bridges with additional room for ground boarding.

Several concession spaces are provided post security, including a sit-down restaurant, a bar and a viewing deck. Tourism will play a role in welcoming passengers with a large display, and companion animals will have their own bathroom.

The project also includes 89 miles of electrical wire, 57 miles of communication lines, 20,000 square feet of glass and more than 1,000 tons of American steel. But it also includes environmental upgrades including window glazing and more efficient heating and cooling systems.

Despite the amenities, the $67 million project has come in under budget, and disruptions to both passengers and carriers has been minimal over nearly three years of construction.

“We’ve been able to construct this entire facility out of site and out of mind to the public until we open,” said deputy airport director Tim Damrow. “We haven’t had to reduce flights into the airport.”

Those flights and growing passenger counts necessitated the project. Missoula is now served by more carriers and larger jets than at any time in the past. Destinations have grown while passenger numbers have increased more than 100% over the last 20 years.

“Western Montana has been discovered, and that makes the expansion of this airport that much more important,” Tester said. “This is a gateway to quality-of-life for the people who live here, the businesses that operate here, and the tourists who come here to support a $7.1 billion tourism economy in our state.”

Airport director Brian Ellestad said the airport authority will soon make a decision on when to begin the next two phases of construction. That will eventually bring three to four more gates in a new east concourse and the razing of the old terminal.

That wing of the project will also house baggage claim.

“From the start of the project we expressed the importance of teamwork,” Ellestad said. “We take that seriously. Everything is much easier if we work together.”