The airport continues to grow year over year – as more and more travelers come to the region for a variety of reasons.
2022 brought more growth for Bozeman’s airport
by Nora Shelly | Chronicle Staff Writer Jan 15, 2023
For the first time, Bozeman’s airport saw more than 2 million passengers in 2022, marking a high point for an airport that has added capacity in recent years.
There were 2,264,424 passengers who traveled through the Bozeman-Yellowstone International Airport in 2022, according to data released this week, which was a 16.7 % jump from 2021. Growth continued apace from 2021, and while 2020 remains an anomaly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, traffic in 2022 was up 44% when compared to 2019.The rise in passengers has pushed the airport’s infrastructure, but Airport Director Brian Sprenger said they are catching up to the heightened demand.
“In some ways we were found,” Sprenger said. “People found us for places for vacations, people found our area for places to live, and all of those generate more travelers.”
The airport numbers also indicate that, despite devastating floods in June that temporarily shut down the region’s biggest tourist attraction and shuttered the closest entrance to Yellowstone National Park from Bozeman for months, the tourism industry also seems to have fared okay last year, too.
Sprenger said they estimated just a short-lived, 5% decrease in travelers attributable to the floods.
Yellowstone Country Tourism Region Executive Director Robin Hoover said there was a 7% increase in the lodging bed tax revenue collected in the region for the first three quarters of last year compared to the same time period in 2021 — despite a 13% decrease in the summer quarter following the flooding.
“We’re on the recovery path from the flooding, and I think the airport’s report and numbers bear that in,” Hoover said.Though locals have gotten used to double-digit increases in just about every metric showing the area is growing in population and tourism, both Sprenger and Hoover said they expect more normal growth rates for this year, in the single digits.
The Bozeman airport has been on track for atmospheric growth for years. With the addition of Southwest Airlines in 2021, it now hosts the largest major airlines in the country, Sprenger said, and non-stop flights to a slew of major cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Boston and Newark.
Bozeman Chamber of Commerce CEO Daryl Schliem said the recent passenger numbers are about what they expected when trying to court airlines to fly into Bozeman. Both he and Sprenger said the higher rate passengers coming through the airport is also due to increased travel from people who live locally.
In 2022, there was a 40% increase in the number of overnight parking stays at the airport, which Sprenger said points to a rise in local travelers who would drive to and from the airport, rather than tourists who may rent a car or call a rideshare.
Sprenger said they estimate that 85% to 90% of Montana residents flying out of Bozeman come from Gallatin and immediately adjacent counties.
Schliem said the addition of more airlines, and flights, in recent years has made the area a good option for businesses looking for a place to locate or for workers who can live anywhere but need to be able to easily travel for work.
“It has really increased our visibility for why Bozeman is a good place to do business,” Schliem said.Though the airport is celebrating the growth, Sprenger said it has challenged the facility’s infrastructure. In recent years, the airport has had to revamp areas of the terminal and work on the back end of things, including an under-construction $23 million overhaul of the baggage handling system that Sprenger said will be able to better handle their passenger levels.
The airport has also expanded its backend capacity to handle more airplanes.
Parking is a constant issue, Sprenger said, though the airport just spent $8 million to expand its parking capacity by nearly 40%.
This year, Sprenger said they plan to finish the baggage project, expand rental car capacity and make improvements to the airfield to make operations more efficient.
The airport has also had to keep up with changes in the industry. Sprenger said the pilot shortage meant there were fewer, but larger planes flying into Bozeman. According to the 2022 data, there was a 12.4% decrease in landings and takeoffs last year of passenger and cargo planes compared to 2021, despite the overall increase in passengers.
According to Sprenger, the larger planes were also more full. About 81% of seats were full on flights last year, compared to 67% of seats in 2021. The average flight brought in 114 passengers in 2021. In 2022, it was 137 people per plane.
“Ultimately the seats are what matters in being able to carry passengers,” Sprenger said.
Sprenger said he doesn’t expect 2023 will include another double-digit percentage growth in passengers. Instead, they are anticipating a more normal trend line of 5% to 7%.
They are already receiving early indications of that — Sprenger said that the first half of 2022 saw a steep increase which started to level out during the second half of the year.
Hoover, with the Yellowstone Country tourism group, said they don’t yet have the data for the lodging bed tax collections for the last quarter of 2022, but heard anecdotally from businesses that the fall and start of winter were solid.
Tourism growth partially correlates to airport traffic, and Hoover also expects 2023 to be calmer.
“What we’re projecting is that these astronomical jumps that we’ve seen since COVID, those will level off,” Hoover said. “Hopefully we’ll continue to grow, but at a much more steady, manageable pace than these huge fluctuations.”
The airport’s explosive growth in recent years has mostly been driven by the addition of new airlines and major destinations. Future growth will be much more dependent on local infrastructure for travel, including lodging options for tourists, Sprenger said, as well as local population growth.
In recent years, Sprenger noted, hotels in the region have filled up during peak tourist seasons, causing rates to jump and likely pushed some potential visitors to look for other places to travel.
More hotel space will mean more travelers — and Schliem said there are a handful of hotels under construction, like one right near the airport, and others in the planning stages.
“I think everything is on pace to continue to see positive movement forward,” Schliem said.