MISSOULA -- Missoula International Airport set a passenger record in 2011, with almost 600,000 people passing through the local terminal.
The news comes as the airport is in talks with Gulfstream International Airlines, which has expressed interest in adding a direct Missoula-to-Billings flight. A decision from the Florida-base airline could come at the end of January.
A total of 582,821 people flew in or out of Missoula last year, about 7,200 more than in 2010.
"That's certainly good news, we're very happy about that. In this economy, to be up is always a good thing," Missoula airport director Cris Jensen said Monday.
July and August were the busiest months at the airport, with 71,994 passengers using the airport in July and 67,756 in August.
The typically slow winter/holiday season saw a 3 percent increase over 2010, Jensen said. The total passenger count for December 2011 was 48,727.
With the exception of Monday's thick fog that delayed some flights and prompted airport crews to run fog seeding operations through the early afternoon, the mild weather has been a positive factor for passenger numbers stretching into 2012.
"It has been relatively mild this winter, compared to last year especially. It's been pretty good to us so far; we're pretty happy about that, too," Jensen said.
Many factors play into air travel patterns, but a comparatively steady Missoula economy has helped increase passenger numbers, Jensen said.
"If I had to pick anything, Missoula is probably a little better off than other places as far as the economy, and that tends to help our air service," he said.
The Missoula airport added three nonstop, seasonal flights during peak travel months, which also accounted for some of the boost in passengers. A seasonal, nonstop flight to Portland, Ore., was added last summer. Nonstop flights to Chicago and San Francisco -- that run from early June through late August -- have been popular options in the past two years.
All seasonal flights are scheduled to be back in 2012, Jensen said.
Jensen hopes there will be more good news about flight additions to report soon.
As Gulfstream vets the proposed Missoula-Billings flight, the strong passengers numbers make one more case for adding the service.
"We definitely share (the numbers) with the airlines, let them know we're growing, that trends are positive and that the community uses the services we have, that the services are successful. That's what the airlines want to know," Jensen said.
The airport also set a record for passenger numbers in 2010, with 575,584 passengers. The total passenger count for 2011 is up more than 10,000 since 2008.