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Missoula airport sees drop in passengers, braces for potential flight reductions

Posted at 10:36 AM, Mar 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-17 16:18:12-04

Missoula International Airport hasn’t escaped the aviation industry’s drop in passenger numbers, with most commercial flights leaving half full as fears over coronavirus spread, officials said Monday.

The long-term impacts to the airport’s financial health will likely be determined in the coming days and weeks by factors beyond its control. Those include a potential reduction in flights, decisions in Congress, and whether the Trump administration acts to restrict domestic travel.

Airport director Cris Jensen said roughly 676 passengers were ticketed to depart on Monday, far less than what’s typical for this time of year.

“That’s close to half of what we’d expect this time of year, and it’s pretty consistent with what we’ve seen over the last few days,” Jensen said. “We’re definitely seeing the passenger numbers trending down as people cancel travel plans.”

Both American and United airlines over the weekend announced a sharp reduction in flights in an effort to stem losses from a decrease in passengers. The two airlines serve Missoula, and while no flights have yet been cut from the local market, Jensen believes it could happen as carriers adjust to changing demands in the coming weeks.

“I think the airlines have been focused on the hub markets and the biggest markets at the moment, trying to address capacity in those markets,” he said. “It’ll take a while for them to work to the spokes, but we do believe that’s coming. We haven’t seen any cuts yet, but we believe it’s coming.”

Once flights are cut, its unknown how long it will take to get them back. The airport, partnered with the Missoula business community, has worked hard over the past six years to expand the number of carriers and flights into Missoula.

A reduction in flights could have wider impacts on summer travel down the road, Jensen said. It could also pinch local companies that rely upon access to outside markets for daily business.

“We’re a little concerned that even when we get past this crisis, the summer may be a little bit soft for us,” Jensen said. “The airlines may respond to that and address capacity related to that. It’s a little too early for us to know, but it’s something we’re paying close attention to.”

The Missoula airport, like all others, receive federal funding based on passenger numbers, so a prolonged drop in passengers could reduce the revenue it receives through the Airport Improvement Program.

Jensen joined a conference call in Washington, D.C., on Monday morning where the issue was discussed and airports expressed their concerns.

“There’s some discussion about potential adjustments to the formula and making funds available, or not penalizing airports for the drastic downtown that we’re all experiencing right now,” Jensen said. “It remains to be seen what those changes look like, but it does appear that Congress and the administration is aware that this will be a challenge.”

It’s also unknown whether the Trump administration will implement a restriction on domestic travel. Such restrictions have already been put in place on international flights. So far, government officials have only said that a domestic travel ban is on the table.

“We are concerned about it,” said Jensen. “That would be the worst case scenario for being an airport. We don’t have any information at this point telling us that’s going to happen, but it would be a pretty big financial impact for us.”

Jensen said the airport is taking precautionary measures to protect those who do chose to fly.

“We want them to practice all the safe behaviors discussed in the media,” he said. “We’re sanitizing our facilities on a daily basis. We have hand sanitizer spread throughout the terminal. The airlines are doing their part and sanitizing the aircraft on a regular basis.”