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Moving on up: Airport expansion to include Flathead's only escalator

by BRET ANNE SERBIN
Daily Inter Lake | July 1, 2021 5:00 PM

Glacier Park International Airport’s $100 million upgrade, dubbed “the biggest project in the history of the airport” by Airport Director Rob Ratkowski, will include Flathead County's only escalator.

The ambitious expansion project will bring in an escalator to connect the two levels of the airport, along with two more gates and a redesign of the security checkpoint.

Escalators are a mainstay of bigger airports, allowing passengers to move efficiently from one area to another.

While there are currently believed to be no escalators in the county, there were plans for an escalator at the Kalispell Mercantile building, according to a 1974 Daily Inter Lake article that detailed first-floor remodeling at the time. Dale Haarr, the KM retail manager at that time, said those plans never came to fruition.

Other local residents remember an escalator at the Montgomery Ward building in downtown, but the Inter Lake and other historians couldn't confirm that.

While rare in Northwest Montana, escalators have been a part of America's history since the late 1800s. The earliest working type of escalator was patented in 1892 by Jesse W. Reno, and was introduced in 1896 as a novelty ride at the Coney Island theme park in New York.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, Reno's "Inclined Elevator" was a a big hit.

"Riding his invention, passengers leaned forward and stood on a conveyor belt of parallel cast-iron strips, powered by a concealed electric motor," Smithsonian noted.

The concept of the escalator dates back even further, though. Nathan Ames was issued a patent in 1859 for his moving stairway, but the idea failed to gain traction and was never built.

THE AIRPORT expansion will provide more shopping and dining options, including a restaurant that will be located past the security checkpoint.

The building’s exterior will be redone in a “mountain modern” style, with a specific central entrance to make entry more straightforward to travelers.

Part of the expansion will also happen behind the scenes, with upgrades to the airport’s baggage system.

Construction work is underway, but Ratkowski said the work is not affecting passengers.

JetBlue Airways’ inaugural flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City to Glacier Park International Airport will arrive Thursday evening, and is indicative of the air passenger growth that is driving the expansion of the airport’s services and physical footprint.

Since the start of the year, several airlines have added new flights to and from Kalispell. JetBlue, Frontier Airlines and Sun Country Airlines all started flying to GPIA this year.

Some of the airport’s existing carriers also expanded their service. Allegiant Air added Los Angeles as a nonstop destination, and American Airlines started flying from Kalispell to Charlotte, North Carolina.

The influx of new travelers means it’s high time for the airport to beef up its infrastructure.

The COVID-19 pandemic put the expansion project on hold for a year, but as air traffic ramped up, the Flathead County Airport Authority gave the green light to resume the expansion this spring.

The authority was encouraged by the general quick recovery of Montana airports, relative to the rest of the country.

“Montana had the least amount of capacity reductions throughout the pandemic,” Ratkowski said.

GPIA fared especially well, compared to security checkpoint through-put data at other airports.

From February through May 2021, GPIA set monthly records for passenger volumes.

“We were fortunate among our peers,” Ratkowski said. “We probably had the best recovery in the country as far as airports go. If not the best, probably top five.”

“We really had a remarkable recovery,” he added.

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at 406-758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com.