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This Montana Airport Finds Rare Success At A Troubled Time For Airlines

Negative numbers prevail in the airline industry; Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport provides an exception. Summer capacity is at 70% of 2019 levels and four airlines just added service, including first time service to Boston.

Bozeman is among the airports that benefit from two coronavirus airline economy trends. One is that the reduced need for daily commutes to the office has encouraged people to move to attractive if distant locations, where they can work on the Internet. Additionally, leisure traffic has come back far faster than business traffic.

“People can choose to live here and do business elsewhere,” said Airport Director Brian Sprenger. “Bozeman is a very dynamic city, with Montana State University, high tech and a high quality of life.

Additionally, Sprenger said, “Western national park airports are doing well. It’s a good summer. and we think winter could be at 80% to 90% of last year,” due to skiers.

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“We’re doing better than average: we’re shrinking less,” he said.

“Certainly, being outdoors seems to be a very appealing thing right now,” he added “We’ve seen a consistent increase in traffic.” Total airport traffic fell 97% to just 2,932 in April, but reached about 83,000 passengers in July.

Before coronavirus, an average of about a dozen people moved to Bozeman every day. New residents continue to arrive and housing prices continue to rise.

BZN got its first-ever non-stop Boston flight on July 1, when JetBlue began seasonal twice weekly service. On Sunday, JetBlue began seasonal JFK service three days a week service. In May, Allegiant began twice-weekly seasonal service to Nashville, a new destination.

This winter, Alaska will begin daily year-round service to LAX while JetBlue will start summer and winter LAX service after moving to LAX from Long Beach. Another new destination is Philadelphia, which American plans to add next summer.

BZN has been a growth airport for two decades: the passenger count reached 1.6 million in 2019, up from about 430,000 in 2000. A $30 million construction project, nearly complete, will add four gates, bringing the total to twelve. 

Not only do people move to Bozeman, but also Montanans in general must fly.

“It’s important to note that Montana is remote, so local travel is not down as much as elsewhere because to get to any city with a million or more people, the closest one is two states away,” Sprenger said, referring to Denver, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and Seattle. “If you need to get somewhere, flying is a necessity.”

BZN has ten year-round daily destinations: Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Portland, San Francisco, Salt Lake City and Seattle. Ten is a high number, Sprenger said, for a city of 50,000 people in a county of 115,000.

Historically, the top four routes for traffic, in order, have been Denver, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and Chicago. The top two airlines have been United and Delta, each with about a third of the market. In July, however, American was number one with about a quarter of all passengers.

“American has been a lot more aggressive in adding flights and in their willingness to fill airplanes,” Sprenger said. American, which serves Bozeman from Chicago and Dallas, plans to add Philadelphia. Sprenger said Charlotte is on his wish list.

Like commercial aviation traffic, general aviation traffic is also growing. Total take-offs and landings of all aircraft at Bozeman in July totaled about 11,300, about 12% higher than the previous busiest month. July business jet flight numbers were 50% higher than a year ago.

Sprenger moved to Bozeman from Denver while he was in grade school. He spent 14 years at Northwest Airlines, where he was a customer service agent in Bozeman and Honolulu, station manager in Kalispell, and manager of education programs in Eagan, Mn. He returned to Bozeman as assistant airport director in 1999 and became airport director in 2009.

Sprenger said Bozeman is more tied to the U.S. East Coast than other Montana cities, explaining the increase in flights to Boston and New York. Other cities, such as Kalispell and Missoula, are more likely to attract moves from California, Oregon, and Washington. Sometimes, West Coast people move back, he said.

“If you move from the East Coast, you are more likely to stay,” he said, because Montana winters – which lack humidity — compare favorably to East Coast winters. But compared to West Coast winters, they are just colder.

“There’s a lot of difference between a dreary, humid, cold winter day in Upstate New York or Michigan, and a bright sunny winter day in Montana, with a lot of blue sky,” Sprenger said.  While the East has dreary 20-degree winter days, Montana has sunny winter days with the temperature at 20 below. “Here, the prettiest days are the coldest,” he said.

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