From its humble origins as an airstrip built between Kalispell and Columbia Falls in 1942, the Flathead County Airport has evolved into Glacier Park International Airport, a growing provider of regional air service that is now setting records for passengers on an annual basis.
At a time of renewed economic activity and rising tourism, the local airport broke its annual passenger record for the fourth year in a row in 2015. A total of 452,588 revenue passengers traveled through Kalispell, a 4 percent increase over 2014, according to airport officials.
The 2015 total is 100,000 passengers above what the airport tallied just five years ago.
“It is very encouraging to see passenger number growth year over year, and to see economic recovery continue to manifest itself in travel,” Airport Director Cindi Martin stated. “The growing consumer demand reflects the appeal of the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park region as a place to live, work and play. We believe we are seeing both tourism and business travel improvements as evidenced by the fact that nearly every month in 2015 saw a record number of travelers arriving and departing through the airport.”
Air travel across Montana was up 2.7 percent through November. Bozeman’s airport surpassed 1 million passengers, a 5.6 percent increase and the first time a Montana airport surpassed six figures. The Billings airport tallied 869,845 passengers, second most in Montana.
Increasing air service in the Flathead Valley has been a top goal for local organizations and businesses in recent years. The heightened attention and efforts appear to be paying off.
In 2006, the airport only had three carriers flying to four destinations. Now there are 10 seasonal carriers and five year-round with service to nearly every major hub in the region.
The most recent additions have been to Portland, Los Angeles and Chicago. The direct flights to Chicago from December through April were achieved through a revenue guarantee from the Glacier AERO group, a nonprofit that raised donations from the community to help increase local airline service. This winter’s flights are off to a solid start and advanced bookings are at 70 percent, according to AERO chairman Paul Johannsen.
The group is in discussions with United Airlines to add a direct flight to San Francisco in the summer. Kalispell already offers a seasonal direct flight to Oakland.
“We’re working on that and hoping to get that pulled together pretty soon,” Johannsen said. “It would be a great market for us.”
Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, said the growing air service is helping area businesses grow while also bolstering the tourism industry.
“It’s been such a high priority for us because our two biggest industry sectors are tourism and manufacturing, and representatives from both of those industries tell us their top priority is getting better air service,” Unterreiner said. “It’s a total winner for everyone.”
The airport itself has undergone significant growth. In 2015, which marked the 40th anniversary of the Flathead Municipal Airport Authority being established to operate and oversee GPIA, a nine-year, $32 million capital improvement project was completed. The project included a sizable makeover of the terminal and several improvements to the site’s infrastructure.