By Bret Anne Serbin
January 15, 2021
After months of delays, a $100 million project to expand Glacier Park International Airport is finally taking off.
On Tuesday the Flathead Municipal Airport Authority gave the green light to restart the expansion project that will nearly triple the square footage of the existing airport to accommodate ever-increasing passenger numbers.
Work was expected to get underway in spring 2020, but a sharp decline in passenger volumes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Airport Authority to put the expansion on hold last April.
“The goal was to allow passenger traffic to return to 2017 numbers before we would consider moving forward with the expansion” Airport Director Rob Ratkowski said in a press release Friday. “We have been watching the numbers almost daily, and passenger counts have stabilized very close to 2017. GPIA’s recovery has been the best in the state, and we are pleased to be taking the next steps in this project.”
He told the Inter Lake the average number of daily passengers that went through the GPIA security checkpoints in December 2020 reached 542 travelers per day. That’s quite a contrast from the airport’s all-time low of just 21 passengers through the checkpoint on April 18, 2020.
The busiest day at the airport last year was Aug. 16, 2020, when 1,962 passengers were recorded at the security checkpoint.
“That’s a jump,” Ratkowski noted.
It’s been enough of a jump for the airport leadership to feel confident about taking on a massive expansion. The project was intended to break ground in 2020 because the airport had seen skyrocketing passenger numbers in recent years, far outpacing the facility’s capacity.
The expansion will add two more gates, bringing the total number of gates to seven. It will also increase the size of the security checkpoint and the concessions area past the security gate. The renovation also is expected to include plenty of changes behind the scenes, such as adding space and new equipment for processing baggage.
The project will be paid for with a mix of grants and bonds.
The Airport Authority has tapped Swank Enterprises and Q&D Construction as the contractors. They can now go ahead with soliciting bids from subcontractors. Once bids are submitted and accepted, Ratkowski said they’ll have a firmer idea of the exact total cost and what components of the expansion plans will be feasible. He hopes to have the bidding process completed by the end of February 2021.
The entire project likely won’t reach full completion for at least three or four years, he said. Crews will probably get to work on the first steps this spring. Most of that early work will take place away from the main passenger spaces, so the traveler experience should be largely uninterrupted during the tourist season this year.
Construction will pause in June and July and then resume in August. Ratkowski predicted passengers will start to notice changes once the bulk of the work gets underway during the summer of 2022.
“We’re hoping to keep it as smooth as possible,” he said. “We’re really looking forward to getting it going.”
“It’s an important project,” Ratkowksi added. “It’s good for the airport, it’s good for the airlines, and it’s good for the community. We’re happy to get it going.”
Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at 758-4459 or email@example.com.