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GPIA: Airport traffic gradually recovering—for now

Daily Inter Lake | August 29, 2020 12:15 AM

Montana airports might have been spared the worst damage from the COVID-19 pandemic this summer. According to a new analysis from industry group Airlines for America, Montana experienced the smallest percentage decline in passenger flights out of any state in the country when compared to July of last year.

Montana saw a 25% reduction in scheduled flights from July 2019 to July 2020. The national average was about a 50% decrease, and New York, the state with the most significant drop-off, saw flights decline by 70% compared to the same time period last year.

“Montana may be a bright spot right now,” observed Rob Ratkowski, the airport director of Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell.

GPIA seems to be following the statewide airline trends. Despite the pandemic cutting into travel plans, GPIA reported much stronger numbers in the summer months than earlier in the spring.

“We’re thrilled about this relatively good summer,” Ratkowski said. “We’re doing fairly well, all things considered.”

July passenger volumes were down about 50% compared to last year, and the airport administration is forecasting about a 37% decrease in passengers for August, compared to this month last year.

Ratkowski said these numbers are on par with the volumes that came through GPIA in 2016, the year before the airport started making plans for a major terminal expansion project.

Ratkowski was relieved the airport is no longer experiencing a 95% passenger volume decline like it saw when comparing April 2020 to April 2019.

“We’re pretty happy with that,” Ratkwoski said. “We’re actually seeing a bit of recovery.”

He attributed the tepid recovery to the role summer leisure tourism plays in Montana’s airline industry, as well as the general sense that rural states like Montana are a safer place to visit than more metropolitan areas. It appears many travelers feel more comfortable traveling to outdoor destinations like Glacier National Park than more urban attractions, so the timing of the pandemic didn’t affect Montana as much as other tourist destinations, according to Ratkowski.

But that could all change in just a few weeks. “The next 90 days are going to be really telling,” Ratkowski warned.

Airlines are currently being buffeted by federal subsidies provided to offset the impact of the health crisis, but those are set to expire at the end of September. When that support disappears, airlines are expected to implement widespread layoffs. Ratkowski anticipated air carriers into GPIA might be working with a skeleton crew starting Oct. 1.

He added all of the employees at GPIA are technically employed by contractors, rather than the airlines themselves, so the direct impact of the anticipated layoffs on GPIA personnel is hard to predict.

In the best-case scenario, however, Ratkowski said GPIA would continue to see rising passenger volumes and it could get started on a highly anticipated $100 million expansion project—expected to start this year but tabled in April due to the sharp decline in GPIA travelers—as soon as this upcoming spring.

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at 758-4459 or