Miranda-Freer column: Improved air service helps local economy take off

From the day when Missoula Economic Partnership formally launched in 2011, one of our key strategic initiatives has been to improve flight options and fares at Missoula International Airport. This focus was born out of our earliest interviews with business leaders in the community, who told us that limited routes, high costs and a lack of in-state air service created a significant drag on their ability to expand markets, invest in local operations and hire additional workers.

That’s why we were thrilled to join staff and directors at Missoula International Airport last month to announce that Frontier Airlines, a low-cost airline headquartered in Denver, will begin offering four flights per week in and out of Missoula, starting June 2014.

It’s also why we were encouraged when Eric Phillips, Delta Airlines’ vice president of pricing & revenue management for the Americas, came to Missoula to speak at our investor breakfast in late February. Phillips said that Delta sees future growth opportunity in our market due to the continued strength of business and leisure travel, and the focus of economic development efforts going forward.

Meantime, we remain optimistic about the re-establishment of in-state air service, possibly as early as this year.

Understandably, local attention has focused mostly on the arrival of Frontier in our community.

Frontier’s arrival means new and additional travel options to 77 domestic and international destinations. It means that business travelers in some cases can arrive at their destination in time for late-afternoon meetings, thanks to early morning departures and evening return flights.

And it means lower costs. In early tracking, staff at Missoula International Airport report fare discounts of 30–40 percent off prices advertised by other airlines prior to Frontier’s announcement.

Those lower fares and increased flight options will ultimately save Missoula businesses millions of dollars, which can now be invested in hiring, R&D, capital improvements or marketing.

Unfortunately, Frontier’s arrival doesn’t solve one of the most vexing travel issues for businesses in Missoula (and, indeed, across Montana): the time and financial cost of in-state travel.

Today, the fastest way to travel from Missoula to Billings via commercial carrier is on Delta Airlines. That three-hour trip requires a stop in Salt Lake City, and it doesn’t arrive until 4:36 p.m. — often too late to conduct business that day.

So a little over a year ago, we began working with Missoula-based Neptune Aviation to explore the possibility of direct in-state air service. Together with the BitterRoot Economic Development District, we helped the company secure a Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund grant for a feasibility study aimed at determining the scope and pricing of that service.

That study is under way now; if the results are promising, we anticipate that Neptune could begin providing in-state service by late 2014.

Ultimately, the impact of reduced airfares and increased service can be seen not only on the bottom line for existing local companies, but also in the types of businesses that choose to establish operations here in the first place. Those companies whose customer or vendor relationships require frequent travel have historically found it difficult to justify locating in Missoula.

Improved air service will make it easier for new and existing companies across industries to get here, stay here, and ultimately thrive here.

Brigitta Miranda-Freer was the former director of business development for Missoula Economic Partnership. Please visit, bookmark and share the website at MissoulaPartnership.com.

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