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Airline worker shortage throws wrench into Montana travel surge

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Posted at 10:02 PM, Jul 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-14 10:50:54-04

MISSOULA — Tourist season has arrived across Montana, and it’s easy to spot.

You see it on license plates, you see it in the long wait at your favorite restaurant, in the outrageous cost of a rental car, but nowhere is the surge in tourism as evident as the Missoula International Airport.

“We just got our June numbers and we're not quite at 2019 numbers yet, we're at 95%, but I expect July will meet or exceed 2019,” said Brian Ellestad, the airport’s acting director.

The secret’s out on Montana and all of its facets of recreation. Because of this, airline route planners have boosted their traffic in and out of the state.

“We’re very California heavy, and then we have a lot of larger aircrafts going to the same destinations,” explained Ellestad. “Dallas is a larger aircraft, Minneapolis is a larger aircraft, so a lot more seats to many more destinations.”

While travelers are ready to hop on a plane and go, it’s the airlines who may be slowing things down.

“Some tenants are doing great, and some are really lagging behind. United and Delta are struggling to find workers, they're very short staffed, so they're taking delays,” Ellestad told MTN News. “We are jumping in behind the scenes to help out where we can.

"But we're not trained on their aircrafts, so when a plane has to hold for a gate, there might be a gate available for them to park, but they don't have enough workers to go park a second airplane that might be on the ground, so it's very frustrating for the passengers and for us.”

If you’ve flown this summer, you know that everything from boarding to baggage claim can take a little longer than usual.

Go ahead and blame it on the post-pandemic travel craze, but whatever you do, try to have some patience and plan for extra wait times.

“The workers that are here for United and Delta are working hard. They're just short staffed, they're overwhelmed….so if you can make their day easier by getting here earlier, you’ll have a better trip,” said Ellestad.

As tourists continue flooding in, Ellestad is eager for the completion of the airport’s new terminal.

Phase 1 of the project includes ticket counters, TSA checkpoints, four gates, plus a temporary gate and baggage claim. This portion will be complete sometime between March and April of 2022.

Phase 2, which is currently under design, will offer four more gates and an area for baggage claim and rental cars.

In addition, the new terminal will implement common-use gates so airlines aren’t restricted to their own gates, but whatever gates are available upon arrival.

“We just built this for the demand that we see now, so we'll probably be chasing growth as we keep building,” said Ellestad. “It will be easily expandable, so that's the good thing.”