A $115 million expansion project underway at Glacier Park International Airport is an indication of the area’s growing population and popularity as a tourist destination. And while the Covid-19 pandemic has put the effort on hold in 2020, as air travel resumes and visits to the Valley increase again, the project is advancing rapidly.
The priority of airport manager Rob Ratkowski and his team is to create a more efficient space.
“In 2004, we had 160,000 air passengers. This year we will see 450,000. We take this seasonality and summer peak very seriously, and we make it the design standard for the new space. We want the community to have a good setup.
Current complications at the airport include significant congestion and limited seating in the terminal building, which creates a crowded first and last impression of Flathead Valley for passengers, Ratkowski said. Limited aircraft parking and shared gates are causing delays and logistical issues between carriers, and airlines and non-airlines alike have no leeway to increase revenue.
The expansion project is focused on developing the airport’s core infrastructure and growing functional areas to accommodate over 20 years of growth.
“We’re not just looking for more space,” Ratkowski said. “After that, we can do a fast and efficient expansion of the gate. If we need to start a small gate project of 15 to 20 million dollars, we can build it later.
“We want to dramatically improve the passenger experience,” Ratkowski continued. “He will look great and feel great. We will have a full service bar and restaurant, gift shop, cafe and more vehicle and aircraft parking. Everything will be bigger. »
While it’s typical for the summer season to see an influx of passengers, Ratkowski and his team analyzed a new trend last year.
“Last year summer tourism stabilized and we saw huge off-season gains. In fact, our parking lot overflowed on a random weekend in March,” he said.
According to Ratkowski, the increase in the number of off-season plane passengers reveals a shift in the local economy.
“New residents use the airport during the off-season,” he said.
PICTURES OF the new facilities reveal a quintessentially Montana design with elements of stone, wood, steel and glass that allow natural light and mountain views.
The first phase of the project runs from June 2021 to the summer of 2024. The second phase will overlap in the summer of 2023 and will continue until the fall of 2024.
“We are on budget and on schedule. The first phase is 27% complete,” Ratkowski said. “We should be done in the fall of 2024, unless we get another windfall of federal money that will set the project back.”
With the expansion of the airport, airlines now have the ability to add new routes. Glacier Park International airlines include Sun Country, United, Delta, American, Alaska, Allegiant, and Frontier. However, staff shortages and fuel prices continue to cause problems for carriers.
“Oil is expensive and airlines are always scrambling to get pilots back,” Ratkowski said.
JetBlue recently pulled out of Glacier Park International, dropping two flights to New York. Other direct flights, such as to Atlanta and Charlotte, have also been cut. However, Ratkowski sees carriers reassigning planes to historic trade routes, which they believe will create heavy off-season traffic.
Glacier Park International currently ranks second in the state for passenger traffic behind Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport.
“I’m confident our industry will do just fine,” Ratkowski said. “People want to be face to face, and when you need an aircraft, no other tool can satisfy that need.”
Business journalist Summer Zalesky can be reached at [email protected]