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A hub for adventurers | Explore Big Sky

Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport continues to grow to accommodate the influx of visitors and also the worldly nature of the people that call this place home.

A hub for adventurers

Explore Big Sky – by Mira Brody – March 22, 2024

Behind the scenes of the bustling first floor of the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport—which hosted 2.4 million passengers in 2023—there’s a different kind of cacophony. A maze of interconnected conveyor belts, stretching 3,300 linear feet and monitored by a precise series of algorithms and a dedicated IT team, carry the airport’s 4,000 average daily bags from the check-in counters as folks drop them off and prepare for their flight, and through a meticulous security screening system before being sorted and loaded onto planes.

“For us, it’s not uncommon to see—during a peak day during peak season—to have 500 skis,” Brian Sprenger, the airport’s president and chief executive officer, said over the continual sound of rotating belts. Behind him stands a trolley piled high with nearly 50 skis bags. More are on their way, snaking their way down the series of belts.

Most airports that accommodate skiing travelers have belts for skis at the check-in counter, but not the robust belt system on the back end, like Bozeman Airport does. Sprenger explains the difficulty ski bags pose is not only due to their length or odd shape, but also the fact that they come from a mountain—a mountain that mitigates avalanche danger using explosives which leave residue from those explosives that is then detected in the screening system.

“Skis have a much higher detection rate than normal bags, and that means that you end up having to hand-inspect them more, but you don’t want to hand-inspect them if you don’t have to,” Sprenger said.

Bozeman’s new $23 million in-line baggage handing system, with state-of-the-art baggage screening and explosive detection technology, debuted in October 2023, is one of many upgrades to the airport in recent years, and one of many to come in the near future.

These upgrades aren’t just for show—just behind Sarasota Bradenton International Airport in Florida, Bozeman Airport is the second-largest growing airport in the country.

Sky-high growth

On the heels of another record year, which saw an 8.8% increase in passengers, in 2024 the airport is projecting another 6.1% increase, or 75,159 passengers. While that increase may sound like a lot, Sprenger calls it “moderate” compared to the 80% post-COVID bump they experienced from 2019 to 2020.

“We have been really doing everything we can to accommodate the increase in passengers and looking at all the different check points, we have been kind of ticking them off as we can,” he said. “Parking is a big one, we basically nearly doubled our parking capacity in the last year.”

The airport has improved its passenger drop-off and pick up areas, adding space for ride-share services; built concourse B, which opened at the end of 2020 and added 70,000 square feet and four gates; opened BZN Market in November including grab-and-go food, a coffee bar and retail; expanded its TSA checkpoint queuing area, which increased the security checkpoint’s footprint by 60%; and built a new, larger concession area for shoppers.

Airport staff are taking down the temporary facade walls from the new concessionaire as we pass by, another project checked off the list. Standing in concourse A, we look down a gentle ramp to some of the oldest parts of the airport’s building, and the site of the next big renovation project, set to break ground in a week. Sprenger calls it the “Enabling Project.”

“We call it ‘enabling’ because all of this is basically to get us all set … to accommodate passengers and baggage, and all that when we lose a significant amount of space.”

He motions down the concourse and explains that they’ll demolish this older section of the airport to accommodate today’s larger, 150-seat planes, and add three more gates (for a total of 15, if you’re keeping track) plus additional concessions and bathrooms. Downstairs, a new baggage pickup area will include three distribution carousels that will triple plane unload capacity and add an additional bag drop at the east end of the airport for rental car customers. The renovation will also include space for additional security screening.

He approximates that it will take four years.

For the time being, the Enabling Project will create a bypass for passengers to move from security to the two gates that will remain operational during construction. Sprenger calls it “a house of cards,” managing massive expansion projects while remaining fully operational and minimizing disruption to passengers.

“Our goal while constructing is to make it as invisible to the customer as we can,” Sprenger said, recalling times where he’d pitch in to help baggage loading during construction—a honed practice “near and dear” to his past when he worked for Northwest Airlines.

“And for the most part we’re able to do that.”
Going transatlantic

At the front of the terminal, there’s an energetic hum, different than the machinery that surrounded us earlier. It’s spring break and airline passengers are checking in, moving toward gates, collecting bags and waiting for loved ones. A woman stands at the gate exit holding a homemade welcome sign, and as her friend approaches, the two shriek with laughter, going in for a hug.

Behind them, crackling fireplaces, local art displays and floor-to-ceiling windows frame the surrounding mountain ranges. That’s all by design, Sprenger explains as we head back downstairs.

“We do a lot of things that are on purpose,” he said, specifically referencing the lack of advertisements on the walls and no 24-hour news stations running at the gates. Instead, pre-borders can be seen looking a landscape view of the Bridger Mountains. “People are on vacation.”

As we walk, he explains the numbers that drive airline growth, and how Bozeman has always remained an outlier.

United Airlines offered BZN’s first flight to New York 10 years ago with Saturday-only service to Newark, New Jersey in the summer. United projected these flights would only fill 35% of seats, and they’d operate the new service at a loss. The community risk mitigation agreement with United was to make up part of the difference if the planes didn’t fill, Sprenger said.

“The very first summer we were at 80%,” he said. From there, the route grew to daily winter and summer service with expanded seasons from May through September. “Never would I have guessed that 10 years ago when we started that.”

He said that trend has continued, with Bozeman managing to fill the same number of seats per aircraft as any airport in the Pacific Northwest, including Denver and Seattle.

“And that’s considering they have international flights that are 350 seats,” Sprenger said. “That’s a really important thing for airlines and for growth because it cost significantly less per seat for the larger aircraft than the smaller aircraft… Bozeman has been able to fill the seats, while others have not.”

Bozeman Airport currently boasts 25 nonstop destinations, and while the low-hanging fruit has been picked as far as new airlines coming to the area, the airport is focused on maturing its existing markets, and of course, improvement projects to meet need over the next decade.

These projects are illustrated on maps pinned to the facility’s conference room wall that encompass the airport’s 4,000 controlled acres. Customs and immigration is on the list, which would entail a 1,000-foot runway extension for those heavier, cross-continental planes and a gate that can receive those aircrafts. Such an addition would accommodate scheduled leisure service from Europe for carriers like Condor and TUI. However, there are many logistics to figure out, such as customs staffing, before we’re there, said Sprenger.

Sprenger said Bozeman Airport’s success can be attributed to four pillars: the growing population center of Bozeman, Montana State University, winter tourism and summer tourism. It’s the perfect culmination of different people, drawn here for different reasons, yet all connecting over a strong sense of adventure; a love for travel.

“That adventure mentality is infectious,” Sprenger said of those who call Gallatin Valley home. “… They’re choosing to live here and their discretionary [goal] is going off [and] exploring the world, because this is their base.”

Source: A hub for adventurers | Explore Big Sky