BOZEMAN — A predawn glow fills the screen of Brian Sprenger’s iPhone as video footage buffers and begins to roll. The screen shows an early Sunday morning at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, where 10 airplanes with around 150 seats each sit against a barely blue sky. Eight planes fill up the airport’s gates. Two sit waiting to drop off passengers.
Sprenger, the airport’s director, smiles as the video pans over the scene. He shot the footage not long ago to show just how busy the airport located just outside Belgrade has become.
In the past decade, the Bozeman airport has doubled the size of its terminal, secured the service of two low-cost carriers and maintained mutually beneficial relationships with the area’s big economic players, including the Yellowstone Club and several entities that support nearby Yellowstone National Park. The airport handles about 84,000 flights a year and Sprenger estimates around 425,000 passengers will enplane there in 2012.
According to Sprenger, his airport should be about 10,000 travelers shy of surpassing Billings’ annual ridership number this year.
“But about 15,000 (Billings passengers) are flying into Eastern Montana cities we don’t have service to. If you take out the intra-Montana part, us and Billings are very equivalent in size,” Sprenger said from his office inside the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport last week.
Missoula International Airport has also hit ridership records in recent years.
July was the busiest month in the Missoula airport’s history, with 37,885 passengers boarding flights there. That’s a 7 percent increase from July 2011. The previous record of 36,082 enplanements was set in August 2009. As of July 30, 334,315 passengers had flown in and out of Missoula this year.
August also was a record-setting month, and the second busiest in the facility’s history, said Missoula Airport director Cris Jensen.
Capacity is up at the Missoula airport, and travelers have responded positively to the options set up by discount carrier Allegiant Travel Co. and other nonstop flight options.
Both airport directors credit different reasons for the successes, and say moving forward they can learn from one another to keep building the momentum.
In Bozeman, the high multiseason leisure traffic, supported by landmarks like Yellowstone Park and Big Sky Resort, has prompted continual expansion in the past 10 years. The latest was construction of a new terminal that opened in August, adding 125,000 square feet of space, three additional gates, an additional baggage claim carousel and expanded food, beverage and gift concessions.
The new “central lobby” has looming wood ceilings and was designed to “invite people to wait” in comfort, Sprenger said.
There are bronze statues of bobcats, and sculpted geese fly overhead above massive stone fireplaces.
The windows in the front of the terminal allow light to pour in from the parking lot. In the winter, travelers liken the space to a rustic ski lodge, said Brenda Papera, a volunteer for the Yellowstone Association’s Destination Yellowstone information and retail shop at the airport.
“A lot of people say, ‘This is the prettiest airport I’ve ever been to,’ ” Papera said. “It feels like a ski lodge in the winter. The bronze sculptures, I think that helps a lot. The fireplaces, too. It’s cozy.”
Yellowstone National Park drives leisure traffic in the summer. The prime skiing in the area encourages travelers to fly through Bozeman during the winter.
“What drives our success? The four pillars are our community, (Montana State University), Yellowstone (National Park) and Big Sky (Resort). You take any one of those pillars away and you’re going to see more of a struggle,” Sprenger said.
The Bozeman airport has successfully parlayed relationships with large business players in the area – like the Yellowstone Club and Big Sky ski area – to make sure the monetary support is there to help entice and keep new carriers at the the airport.
Bozeman recently opened a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility so international travelers don’t have to stop at other airports, such as Great Falls, to clear customs. It saves travelers time and money, Sprenger said. The facility costs money and wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the big players connected to the Yellowstone Club.
The city of Belgrade and Gallatin County are going to help pay for an upcoming $37 million highway interchange project that will add an exit off Interstate 90 to the airport.
“We can’t do it by ourselves,” Sprenger said. “It takes community involvement and an understanding of what the community needs.”
Missoula officials hope their terminal will soon catch up to Bozeman’s in size and comfort.
In fact, airport officials were gathered in the terminal’s conference room last week to begin putting together information for a terminal master plan. Everyone who does business in the airport was invited to share their ideas.
Vendors, airport tenants, the community and a host of experts will all get to weigh in on what exactly they’d like to see if the terminal is expanded, said Brian Ellestad, airport deputy director.
They hope to have a draft master plan finished by the end of the year.
What Missoula airport officials saw with a type of exchange program to the Bozeman airport this summer will also factor into plans.
“Both (Sprenger) and I were gaga over the baggage handling system,” said Jensen, adding that “there are so many things about that building that are well done.”
Before the Bozeman terminal expansion, Sprenger said he asked Missoula airport officials for advice.
Both airport directors agree no airport is the same and each caters to a different set of travelers.
“We have a saying that if you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport,” Jensen said.
Bozeman serves a larger number of inbound travelers that come to the area for leisure, for example. They have different needs than “outbound” business travelers that Missoula serves in much greater numbers.
It’s that business customer who would most benefit from adding a low-cost carrier here – which is a huge push in Missoula.
Missoula has Allegiant’s services to drive prices down in some markets.
Bozeman, which only offers Allegiant service to three destinations, also has low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines to help keep prices down. Low-cost carrier service from Frontier is a bigger factor.
“Frontier has been very good for our market,” Sprenger said. “ ... Everyone wants a low-cost carrier. What they are sometimes surprised at, for the person who plans ahead, it may not save them money. What does change are one-way fares.”
That one-way fare is what business travelers use most.
“When Frontier or Alaska (Airlines) enter a market, the other airlines have to compete. That means you might fly, in the case of going from Denver to Bozeman, you might fly Frontier one way and Delta (Air Lines) the next,” Sprenger said. “Competition is always good, with the caveat you have to be able to support it.”
Per mile, airfare in Missoula and Bozeman is generally comparable.
Sprenger’s numbers show that in 2011, the price per mile at Bozeman was 17.2 cents. Missoula was 17.5 cents. That would be about a $20 difference for a 1,000-mile trip, Sprenger said.
“I always tell people this,” Sprenger said. “I can go to any airport in the country and find a lower fare to somewhere in another airport. It’s all based on where you’re going.”
Still, Sprenger didn’t downplay the importance of Allegiant and Frontier service in Bozeman.
“It does impact your ability to survive and do well, it stops people from driving to another airport. That was one of the focus points in our community, why we put up an effort to get Frontier here,” Sprenger said. “I cross my fingers every day they’ll be here long-term.”
Securing a low-cost carrier to Missoula is paramount for officials here, and Jensen hopes a new partnership with area economic development organizations will help.
More and more, revenue guarantees that are generated by organized community support are crucial to convincing carriers to add service.
Community involvement helped keep Frontier in Bozeman in 2008 and helped get the nonstop New York flight there, of which the community subsidizes about 43 percent. Sprenger said the flight has been successful, but believes they’ll have to pay some of the revenue guarantee on it.
In Missoula, Jensen is convinced a new kind of community involvement spearheaded by the Missoula Economic Partnership will help when approaching airlines about adding service to Missoula.
“We never really had a single group to coalesce us into a force ... for the first time we have that opportunity with MEP,” Jensen said. “They’ve focused us like we’ve never been focused before.”
MEP President and CEO James Grunke is working with his staff to bring business leaders around the community to gather feedback and information and also to raise money to add to the arsenal when talking with airlines about adding service.
The response from businesses has been good and the agency continues to brainstorm ways to help entice carriers here or to help convince existing carriers to add service, whether it’s through revenue guarantees or other ways to share risk, Grunke said last week.
“Air service, to us, adds to ease of doing business,” he said.
Bozeman’s successes in keeping a low-cost carrier could help Missoula, Jensen said.
“With all airports, we’re happy to see them get service because it can open doors,” he said.
Sprenger sees continued collaboration as paramount moving into the future.
“Over time we will see consolidation of airports, just by virtue of economies of scale. The importance of focusing and making sure your airport isn’t a part of that is extremely important,” Sprenger said. “The best thing we can do to support our airports is to make sure we use our airports as much as we possibly can. I want every single person who lives in Bozeman to fly out of our airport. I want the same of Missoula, to have people in that area fly out of their airport.”