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MISSOULA - Despite the lowly state of the U.S. economy, things have been looking up at Missoula International Airport.

A record number of passengers passed through its gates in 2008, bucking a national trend that saw 1.6 percent fewer fliers in the wake of last summer's surge in gas prices and the ongoing federal fiscal mess.

"As we look at most of the other airports, they are down," said airport director Cris Jensen. "We feel pretty fortunate that ours are up."

The number of ticketed passengers last year totaled 287,934, surpassing the record number from 2007 by 1.6 percent.

Jensen attributed much of the growth to the popularity of the low-cost Allegiant Air flights to Las Vegas and Phoenix. "Allegiant Airlines has become such a popular thing," he said. "People are really taking advantage of those fares."

To Jensen, the numbers don't just provide a snapshot of the "relative stability" of Missoula County's economy; they translate into real dollars, as the airport receives money and federal grants for each ticketed passenger. Much of that money is put into the airport's infrastructure and security, a direct benefit to passengers.

Kim Lewis, travel consultant with Davidson Travel in Missoula, said last summer's high gas prices may have actually helped travel out of Missoula, attracting fliers who would normally have driven to Spokane for cheaper airfare.

"People kind of did the math," she said. "The extra $100 or $200 they'll spend out of Missoula was worth it."

Noticeably slower this year were holiday season bookings, said Lewis, hypothesizing that people did less traveling to have money to spend on gifts.

Jensen's numbers jibe with that. December would have been down were it not for the fact that the Montana Grizzlies went to the Football Championship Subdivision title game.

He estimated that more than 1,000 Missoulians hopped either a commercial or charter flight to the game in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"Without the Grizzlies, December probably would have been a down month for us, maybe a couple of percentage points," he said. "We like those guys. We need to make sure they do that every year."

While there was growth, it was slower than it has been in the past. For the past several years, Missoula International Airport has enjoyed growth of up to 5 percent, so while the news is good, it isn't great.

"We believed we were going to finish the year ahead, but we weren't expecting it to be ahead much," Jensen said. "We're kind of coming down from that, but we're happy to be on the right side of the line."

MIA is in negotiations to add another nonstop flight to the South. With help from a federal grant, Jensen expects to make an announcement soon about a direct-to-California flight.

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