Montana’s five busiest airports all call themselves “International.”
So why can’t you fly the friendly skies straight to, say, Canada from any of them?
It’s a matter of demand.
“Montana markets are pretty small and the Canadian market is small compared to the U.S. market, so that creates challenges,” said Brian Sprenger, who directs the state’s boomingest airport, Bozeman Yellowstone International.
“It’s probably not as much a customs conversation as it is the question of: Is there enough traffic to support commercial flights?” said Missoula International Airport director Cris Jensen. “The airlines have just never really had a reason to want to do it.”
Sprenger said people forget that not all aircraft arriving in Montana are airliners. “In fact, we have at Bozeman over 130 aircraft that arrive directly from foreign locations every year, including direct from South America, Europe and Asia. But each of these are business/private aircraft.”
Bozeman Yellowstone can handle them because airport officials and supporters such as the Yellowstone Club put up money to remodel part of the old terminal building to staff a U.S. Customs office. It opened and welcomed its first flight from Calgary on July 1, 2012.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) staffs the 2,300-foot facility Thursdays through Mondays.
Glacier Park International in Kalispell and Great Falls International, the two major airports closest to the Canadian border, have maintained staffed U.S. Customs facilities for years. The Kalispell airport cleared more than 500 aircraft into the U.S. last year, director Rob Ratkowski said.
In many cases, the private international flights are heading elsewhere, touching down at the closest port to the border to clear customs.
Farther south, neither Billings Logan International, the state’s second-largest airport, or Missoula, No. 3, have customs facilities and probably won’t in at least the near future.
“We’ve gone through the pricing and requirements from the customs people several times and found the same thing each time: It is cost-prohibitive at this point,” Jensen said.
He figures it would cost between $500,000 and $750,000 to build a separate facility with public access and pay benefits and wages to an officer. And that doesn’t take into account maintenance and operation costs.
“We kind of looked at potential users, and in our case Washington Corp. would be our only regular user,” Jensen said. “We talked about splitting costs and charging whoever else would use it, but the numbers still don’t pencil out.”
As it is, Washington Co. corporate jets and others flying into Missoula from foreign ports must clear customs elsewhere.
Prior to the events of 9/11 in 2001, most airports had customs.
“Once the Department of Homeland Security was in place, one of the first things they did was to kill the Customs at a number of those airports, including Billings,” Billings Logan director Kevin Ploehn said in an email. “Much effort was put into trying to get Customs back but the Department of Homeland Security basically said if you want it, pay for it.
“So far Bozeman is the only one to go down that very expensive path.”
No one polices the names of an airport, though some are federally designated as international, usually by the Secretary of the Treasury.
Great Falls International is one of three on the list in Montana. The other two? Cut Bank Airport and Havre City-County Airport.
A 2015 list of Montana airports where CBP inspection services are normally available includes Great Falls, Bozeman, Kalispell and Cut Bank ports, along with five others: Bert Mooney in Butte, Helena Regional, Del Bonita/Whetstone International north of Cut Bank, East Poplar International, and Ross International at Sweetgrass.
Billings Logan has lost the international status it gained in 1971, and Ploehn said he realizes it’s “a bit confusing” to still call it that.
“We approached our Commission a few years back about changing but they were not interested at that time, hoping that somehow we would be able to put Customs back in place,” he said. “The effort to change an airport’s name is a bit of an endeavor as our name is listed in a number of publications and pilot notice sites. So it takes a bit of planning to make the change.”
Missoula’s airport was known as Johnson-Bell Field for much of the second half of the 20th century, in honor of aviation pioneers Bob Johnson and H.O. Bell. Some still refer to it as that, though it was changed to Missoula International in the 1980s.
“That’s really a holdover from long ago when we did have a customs officer,” Jensen said. “It was before my time but my understanding is that the officer retired and an officer would drive over from Butte when there was a need. But that practice ended long ago.”
“We haven’t changed because frankly we’re cheap,” Jensen added with a chuckle. “There’s signage, letterhead, business cards and all that, so we’ve just resisted changing our name because it’s going to cost money to do it.”
Nonetheless, change is in the wind in Missoula.
As part of $100,000 expansion of the terminal over the next four years, the airport is hiring a public relations firm. One of its tasks will be to look at rebranding the facility.
“We’ve actually, within the last couple of weeks, been having conversations about a new name,” said Jensen. “Kalispell went to Glacier Park (International) and you have Bozeman Yellowstone. So we’re contemplating something like that.”
The idea is to come up with a name that appeals to someone, say, on the East Coast who’s looking for a western Montana experience.
“If you search for Yellowstone Park, you also likely get a link to Bozeman Yellowstone International,” Jensen said. “We don’t have a national park we can kind of hitch our name to, but it’s something we’re wrestling with.”
Among the early suggestions: Missoula Bearport and Missoula Wilderness Airport. Bearport started out as a crazy suggestion, but has gained traction.
“We might even do something like a public poll or survey,” Jensen said. “The process is kind of fun. There’s a lot of creative people out there. Who knows? It ultimately might be the Missoula Intergalactic Airport.”
For now it’ll stay Missoula International. Or, as Jensen said he sometimes calls it, “Missoula Wannabe International.”