Shortage of rental cars linked to increased flights

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Passengers disembark from the American Airlines inaugural flight from Dallas/Fort Worth to Glacier Park International Airport on Thursday, June 6. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Car-rental agencies in the Flathead Valley are scrambling to accommodate an earlier and heavier influx of seasonal visitors than the area has seen in past years.

Some business leaders say the new American Airlines flights have caught local rental-car providers short-handed at the start of the busy summer season.

American Airlines recently introduced three new non-stop flights to Kalispell from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport and Chicago O’Hare International Airport. These new flights have brought additional visitors and new markets to Glacier Park International Airport. These flights began arriving in Kalispell on June 6, about three weeks earlier than the peak season typically starts in the Flathead. As usual, all carriers have also upgraded to larger aircraft for the summer months, which has combined with the American Airlines flights to put a strain on local car rental companies.

“All rental-car agencies are pretty booked,” said Dale Duff, owner of Hertz Rent-A-Car at Glacier Park International Airport. He explained the agencies need to order fleets at least a year ahead of time to receive the cars from the manufacturers. The announcement of the new American Airlines flights in December 2018 therefore created a timing issue for the numerous rental car companies in the Flathead Valley.

“Demand is higher than in previous years, but we want to meet that demand,” he said. He has been reaching out directly to dealerships in places like Minnesota in order to bring in more cars as quickly as possible.

He also said that rental-car companies in the area are working together to try to address the influx.

“We help one another out,” Duff said. Even competing companies such as Hertz and Enterprise are keeping track of one another’s fleets, lending vehicles and honoring each company’s lowest rates.

“We’re appreciative of the new flights,” Duff said, noting the benefit that the increase in visitors has for businesses across the Flathead Valley. “We want guests to come in and not be disappointed.”

Diane Medler, director of the Kalispell Convention and Visitor Bureau, said the first few weeks of summer have been “pretty touchy.” But she believes the rental-car companies are working to address the shortage by bringing in additional fleets, being more careful with reservations and working collaboratively. “I think the worst is over,” she said.

The biggest issue for visitors hoping to rent a car in the Flathead Valley arises for people who do not make prior reservations. Duff said that at Hertz, “all advanced reservations are honored.” He believes the same is true at rental-car agencies throughout the area. But walk-up car rentals are simply not available at this time, he said.

Medler agreed that while the companies have done their best to meet the recent demand, she expects there will still be issues with people not making early reservations.

Duff advised visitors to make rental-car reservations 30 days in advance during normal operations and at least 60 days in advance during the peak season. Currently, all electronic reservation systems are closed, so the best bet for last-minute planners is to call the companies directly and ask about any cancellations.

Medler said the recent increase has prompted changes in the way local businesses communicate with summer visitors. She believes visitors from the new Dallas/Fort Worth market might be unfamiliar with the limited resources of a small city like Kalispell. She suspects new visitors might expect the extensive availability of rental cars that they could find in larger areas such as Denver. She has suggested to local hotels that they advise their guests to make advanced rental-car reservations to help get the word out about the short supply.

Medler said they are also looking to increase ground transportation options such as Uber and Lyft in the Flathead Valley.

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at bserbin@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.

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