Busy airport poised for substantial expansion project

October 21, 2018

A three-year expansion plan for Glacier Park International Airport aimed at accommodating burgeoning visitation growth and meeting local flight demands will potentially add 40,000 square feet to the airport terminal by the end of 2022, according to Airport Director Rob Ratkowski.

The expansion is the focal point for the Flathead Municipal Airport Authority’s 20-year master plan for the long-term development of the airport.

During a Kalispell Chamber of Commerce lunch on Tuesday, Ratkowski reported that nearly 252,000 people have boarded planes flying out of Glacier Park International so far this year.

In the last 12 months, he said, the airport has served a total of around 600,000 incoming and outgoing passengers.

At this rate, 2018 will exceed last year’s record number of 270,000 outgoing passengers and is on course to break 300,000.

That number is more than a 14 percent increase in passenger volume over 2017 and a 50 percent increase over 2013.

Current growth estimates, according to Ratkowski, indicate that 15 years from now, Glacier Park International could see passenger volumes that rival Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, the busiest airport in the state.

Plans for the expanded airport include more space for all aspects of the terminal, from ticketing to security to baggage claim, with a goal of improving a little of everything, Ratkowski said.

At approximately 80,000 square feet, the current airport terminal services three flights out of gates 1A, 1B and 1C on the ground floor, which do not offer jet-bridge service.

The two gates on the upper level offer access to one jet bridge each, leaving some major airlines that require jet-bridge service vying for the limited space.

Conceptual drawings of the expanded airport show a larger upper level, with the bottom three gates relocated upstairs. Each gate would have its own full-sized holding area and jet bridge, with potential for an additional two bridges on the southern end.

Another idea in the works is the replacement of the east wall of the terminal with a wall of windows, allowing for a sweeping view of the Columbia Mountain Range.

“We want to punch people in the face with Montana as soon as they get off the plane,” Ratkowski said.

He later told the Daily Inter Lake that one of the goals with the new design will be to capitalize on the eastern view while incorporating local style and aesthetic into the common areas.

“We really hope to build a really functional space and make it very attractive in the end,” he said.

According to Ratkowski, he and the airport board are now soliciting design firms and awaiting federal funding to come through before moving forward with final plans.

Funding for the expansion, he said, will come from a combination of three primary sources: the Federal Aviation Administration, the private bonding market and some of the airport’s cash reserves.

The federal administration awards airports money from two pools, entitled and discretionary money.

Each year the airport receives a government-funded stipend to put toward capital-improvement projects, but for larger projects that require additional funding, the airport can request discretionary funding, he said.

The airport will use some of its reserves to match a portion of the discretionary funding and to fund renovations to some of the “non-public” aspects of the terminal, such as restaurants and gift shops, which are not eligible for government funding.

Ratkowski said his team plans to begin the preliminary design phase for the expansion during the first quarter of 2019, depending on how soon funding comes through.

Construction, he said, tentatively has been slated to begin in the fall of 2020, and likely will occur in three phases over three years.

According to Kim Morisaki, spokesperson for Glacier Airline Enhancement and Retention Outreach, airlines look at a number of factors when considering to offer new flights at an airport, including its size and the number of customers serviced.

The outreach group partners with community members and businesses to raise money to back a minimum revenue guarantee for airlines willing to take a risk on offering new flights to and from Glacier Park International Airport.

That guarantee ensures airlines won’t lose money if the flights are unsuccessful or don’t fill up, and the resulting payout by the group depends on the money lost.

Because of the group’s participation in the guarantee contracts, Morisaki said the number of airlines serving the Flathead has grown in the last 10 years from two to four, for a total of 11 direct flights to different hubs around the nation.

Ratkowski and Morisaki said the airport, in partnership with the outreach group, plans to apply for a grant that potentially would allow them to approach American Airlines with a guarantee contract in exchange for a new direct flight to Dallas.

As more airlines offer more flights and supply larger aircraft with more seating, pricing becomes more competitive and it becomes easier, faster, more affordable and more attractive for people across the country to visit the valley during both the busy summer season and shoulder seasons, said Diane Medler, director of the Kalispell Convention and Visitor Bureau.

“There is a perception that we’re remote and hard to get to, and we’re always trying to dispel that perception,” Medler said.

She cited a study released in early October by the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research that states nonresident visitors spent more than $530 million in Flathead County in 2016-2017.

“Non-resident visitors contribute a lot, so it’s important that we’re able to have the flights to get them here all year,” Medler said.

The airport expansion, she said, will help the area attract more flights and larger aircraft, helping to accommodate the growing visitation.

“I think it looks good,” Medler said about the proposed expansion. “It looks to be a smart sort of phased approach, not trying to be too big too quick.

“I think all the indicators show that visitation is growing and will continue to grow, so it’s good to be prepared for that,” she added.

With visitation numbers on the rise, Ratkowski said the airport authority will revisit and update the master plan in the coming years to make revisions as needed.

Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.