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Missoula airport keep tabs on legislation to buoy terminal project, operations

MSO New Terminal
Posted at 11:30 AM, Dec 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-30 13:30:04-05

MISSOULA — Federal legislation winding its way through Congress has brought some relief to airports across the country, including Missoula, where work on a new passenger terminal continues to advance.

Tracking the legislation requires a keen eye, and the airport anticipates that additional funding could be in store. It could help lift the airport at a time when travel has slipped under the weight of the pandemic.

“There’s really two different things going on, one being the Omnibus Bill that funds the Airport Improvement Program at $3.3 billion,” said airport director Cris Jensen. “There was also $400 million in supplemental grants.”

The funding covers a range of programs, from essential air service to Homeland Security and the FAA. It also includes a bill ensuring that airports aren’t unfairly penalized due to the decline in passengers and flights during the pandemic.

Jensen said the airport is working with the FAA to receive additional funding through the legislation. The amount remains uncertain.

“We’ll hope for a number we can apply to our terminal project,” Jensen said.

Aside from the omnibus bill, which funds the government, the airport is also watching the new coronavirus relief package. While airport funding was initially left out of the measure, Missoula airport officials said the $900 billion package now includes $2 billion for airports and concessionaires.

Of the $2 billion, around $1.7 billion is reserved for commercial service airports. The funding could be applied to cover a range of expenses, from operations to sanitation and payments toward debt.

The latter could be beneficial to the Missoula airport, which looks to cover debt associated with the new $70 million south concourse. Jensen said it’s not yet known how much the Missoula airport will receive from the relief package.

“We’re still trying to discern how much of that will come to us,” he said. “Our estimate is somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million. There’s still some variables that are unknown to us. We’re doing our best to calculate that.”

The airport in February received $6.7 million from the Airport Improvement Program – a boost that had airport officials celebrating. It meant less debt for the south concourse and brought the airport closer “to the goal of moving into the next phase of the project.”

But the pandemic hit the next month, bringing deep impacts on the airline industry and airports across the country. Since then, the Missoula airport has scrambled to collect whatever revenue it could find.

Along the way, Jensen said airport staff also has been successful in finding funding from other nontraditional sources. While some of the funding was related to the pandemic, some of it came from other programs.

“At the end of the day, we’ve actually done pretty well in going out to find all the various sources of funding to get through the pandemic,” he said. “All in all, it’s been a pretty successful effort. We’ll continue to look for these sources of revenue. We know in this new relief act, there will be some additional funding.”

The airport is hoping for a return to normal next spring when a number of new flights move into the Missoula market. The south concourse is expected to be finished at the end of 2021, but the airport hasn’t decided if it will being construction on the east concourse as soon as anticipated.

Jensen has said the timing of that will depend on revenue and how the industry fairs over the next year. Moving into construction while the contractors are on-site would save the airport money in the end.