If regional nonprofit Glacier AERO were a propeller, it would have been spinning and humming Thursday.
That’s when American Airlines formally launched new direct flights serving Glacier Park International Airport and Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Chicago.
As currently planned, the direct flights to Los Angeles and Chicago will end in September and the Dallas/Fort Worth flights will continue into October.
The snagging of direct flights by American Airlines was another success for Glacier AERO (Airline Enhancement and Retention Outreach), an organization founded, nurtured and led by the region’s business community to expand and enhance airline service for the Flathead Valley.
In the past, Glacier AERO, when negotiating with airlines about new flights, has dangled a carrot referred to as a Minimum Revenue Guarantee, or MRG, a tool often used by communities hoping to bring more airlines and flights to a regional airport like Glacier Park International.
Specifically, during United’s maiden expansion of its winter service in 2014, Glacier AERO established a Minimum Revenue Guarantee of $235,000, with the understanding that if United experienced a shortfall after calculating costs and revenues that Glacier AERO would cover shortfalls up to $235,000.
As it turned out, Glacier AERO paid only $16,600 that year to United to cover shortfalls.
The Minimum Revenue Guarantee reduces an airline’s risk when trying out a new route and working to establish new markets.
Negotiations with American Airlines yielded a different approach.
“American didn’t want an MRG,” said Kim Morisaki, business development and marketing director for Montana West Economic Development. “They wanted help with marketing the flights.”
Morisaki said 62 businesses and individuals supported the effort in 2018 to recruit American Airlines. That tally included 20 individuals who split their time between Texas and Montana and longed for a direct flight connecting Dallas/Fort Worth and the Flathead Valley, she said.
Morisaki emphasized that new and expanded service for Glacier Park International Airport is good for locals traveling for pleasure and for regional businesspeople.
“I’ve heard people say that it only benefits tourism,” she said.
In a news release Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, celebrated the new service from American Airlines.
“These new routes will help more people experience all that the Flathead has to offer, and give folks in Kalispell better options for their own travel plans,” Tester said.
Glacier AERO traces its roots to 2012 and efforts by the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce and Whitefish Mountain Resort.
The first fundraising effort helped convince United Airlines, using a Minimum Revenue Guarantee, to provide a direct winter flight each week to and from Chicago.
Dan Graves, chief executive officer of Whitefish Mountain Resort, and Rick Cunningham, then-executive director of Big Mountain Commercial Association, helped lead the initial fundraising effort.
Graves said Whitefish Mountain Resort had recognized that the inherently risky ski business needed to attract customers outside its key regional base of support. He said other well-known ski areas, ranging from Big Sky to Jackson Hole, had increased visits from more far-flung skiers by working with airlines to expand service to regional airports.
“From a resort standpoint, we needed to reach a broader market across the country,” Graves said.
The first target was enhancing winter service by United out of Chicago.
Since 2014, Whitefish Mountain Resort has contributed $65,000 to Glacier AERO, Graves said.
“I think it has definitely paid off,” he said.
Survey data show that about 3,500 skiers visited the ski area via a Chicago flight during a season preceding the organization’s work and about 7,700 visited this season, Graves said.
He noted that skiers who fly to the Flathead Valley benefit a host of businesses and their employees. They rent cars, eat at restaurants, lodge at hotels, shop and use other services, he said.
United continues to offer a flight during an additional 16 weeks each winter.
Morisaki said she was encouraged during Glacier AERO’s 2018 fundraising that 18 companies that had not donated before contributed, and that the 20 individual donors stepped up.
Otherwise, about a dozen businesses or organizations have been Glacier AERO’s consistent and sustaining contributors since 2014. Montana West Economic Development manages the nonprofit’s fund and assists with annual fundraising.
Graves said he would like to see greater participation by regional businesses in supporting the fund through contributions. He said he’d like for a broader community of businesses to recognize that “we’re all in this together.”
He also said he’d like to see United bump up its winter service another notch and add another weekly flight and hopes American will consider continuing its Texas direct flight through the winter.
Rob Ratkowski, airport director for Glacier Park International Airport, said Glacier AERO has played a vital role in enhancing airline service.
“We, as an airport, can only do so much to incentivize air service,” Ratkowski said, noting that federal regulations can limit or impact what sorts of incentives can be offered.
He said community-driven Minimum Revenue Guarantee programs provide more regional direction of air service and can lead to more community buy-in.
Airlines currently serving the airport include Alaska, Allegiant, American Airlines, Delta and United.
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at email@example.com or 758-4407.