Change in the air – By early January, there could be more, not fewer, flights ferrying passengers between Missoula and Salt Lake City.

With Delta ending service to the area, SkyWest Airlines will increase number of flights from Missoula to Salt Lake

By MICK HOLIEN of the Missoulian

But while seven flights currently are scheduled to come online to leave for Utah – one every two hours – passengers will fly in 50-seat regional jets operated by SkyWest Airlines instead of Boeing 737s flown by Delta Airlines.

Previously, each day there were two flights from Missoula to Salt Lake City serviced by SkyWest, while three others were flown by Delta jets, which seat 128 passengers each.

The change is the wave of the future for airports the size of Missoula as the major airlines look to cut costs by flying only to major destinations and leaving the feeder traffic to regional airlines using smaller aircraft.

Delta will end its 737 service in Missoula, Helena and Great Falls, a part of the company’s continued restructuring, has little to do with Montana and instead is attributed to the airline’s decreased revenue at hubs like Salt Lake, one of Delta’s four domestic centers which employs nearly 4,000 people.

"It was a hub decision and we’re downstream from the hub so we’re going to get affected," said John Seymour, director of airports for the Missoula County Airport Authority.

The airlines call it "right sizing" the market, an effort to increase profitability after devastating losses after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"We’ve lost several hundreds of millions of dollars in Salt Lake City and outlying markets," said Delta spokesperson Anthony Black in Atlanta. "We had to decide the right kind of aircraft to put in each market."

"There’s a lot of uncertainty in the airlines industry," he said, "but we’re always going to put aircraft in cities where people want to fly to meet customer demand."

While sympathetic about the situation created for 14 Delta employees in Missoula and 27 other Delta employees in the state who will lose their jobs, Seymour said the change in aircraft could provide improved service between Montana cities like Missoula to Delta’s hub in Salt Lake City.

"If they can get the right seats, the right mix, the right aircraft, then it’s a win, win, win for all of us," he said. "I think you’re going to see more and more of that in these markets because it’s expensive to run a 128-seat airplane in here in the middle of January and have it half full."

The initial Delta Airlines announcement earlier this month called for a net loss of 184 passenger seats, but Seymour said that was deceiving because half of the seats on one flight (64 seats) were earmarked for Kalispell and not available to be sold for Missoula.

"What’s encouraging to me is that Delta maintained pretty much what seats we have available in our market," he said. "They did nick some other cities pretty hard, Spokane being one of them, and I think that bodes pretty well for us that they realize we still have a good market."

With seven flights with 350 seats anticipated on SkyWest Airlines, there’s actually a net gain of eight seats. And with the flights scheduled to leave every two hours for 12 hours starting at 6:30 a.m., there’s also added convenience.

"The increased frequency should make their hub a little bit more profitable and maybe we’ll end up getting some additional capacity for the summertime as long as our numbers continue to grow," said Seymour. "In other cities, that’s actually been a stimulus so that there were more people that fly because you can go at different times and meet your schedule."

The number of passengers using Missoula International Airport continues to escalate, he said, and while easily exceeding 2002, are approaching the record numbers from 2001.

Only in April did fewer people fly out of Missoula than did a year ago. In June, July, August and September, 6,343 more people flew than during the same months in 2002.

"If you graphed our chart from 1960 until today by the year, it’s an uphill graph," said Seymour. "It’s constantly climbing at 3 or 4 percent a year."

The growth in the Missoula market, especially in the summer, has attracted some interest from other airlines, some of which already are serving the market.

"Missoula’s been a good market and if they see an opportunity to gain some market share they will," he said.

Freight is one consideration that hasn’t received a lot of attention with the Delta cutback. Regional jets are able to carry substantially less freight than a Boeing 737.

Thus far in 2003, Delta Airlines has carried more than 238,000 pounds of freight between Salt Lake City and Missoula.

"Shipping a big item is going to be a little more difficult," said Seymour, who predicted the loss of capacity could prompt an additional air freight carrier to begin flying here.

"It’s a marketplace driven deal. If there’s a demand, sooner or later someone is going to try and service that demand," he said.

Reporter Mick Holien can be reached at 523-5262 or at [email protected]

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