The 76-seat American Eagle jet belonging to the world’s biggest and busiest airline taxied to a gate for the first time at Missoula International Airport beneath a choreographed water cannon salute from airport pumpers.
It was 14 minutes ahead of schedule.
“First day. That’s a good way to start,” noted airport director Cris Jensen.
It left the Dallas-Fort Worth airport at 8:30 a.m. Mountain time and touched down in Missoula at 11:40 a.m. to an audience of airport staff, air travel boosters and a small knot of reporters, photographers and videographers.
A growing demand for nonstop service between western Montana and Texas was satiated at last.
“It’s noon and we have the whole day,” said Scott Taylor of Dallas, one of the first passengers to deplane. “We can go get lunch and actually get some work done.”
Taylor took a bite from a piece of celebratory cake and waited for his father and his father’s wife, who were on the same historic flight. The Dallas family owns two buildings on Higgins Avenue in downtown Missoula and is looking to buy more.
This beat the alternative of a layover in Denver, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis or Portland, which Taylor said can eat up most of the day.
“I’ll personally come up here more often, so for me this is wonderful,” he said. “For our whole family it’s wonderful.”
It was a groundbreaking day for commercial air travel in Missoula.
Within the hour, the American jet that flew in with the Taylors from Texas flew out to Chicago. It probably passed the airline’s first flight from the Windy City to Missoula, which was scheduled to land at 12:45 p.m. and leave again for Dallas-Fort Worth at 1:23 p.m.
Later the airport staged another media event when Denver-based United Airlines — an established presence in these parts — arrived with its inaugural flight from Los Angeles.
“It’s a great day for us,” said Barbara Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula. “From the tourism end, we’ve recognized for a very long time how important it is to have easy access and direct flights into our area, especially into western Montana.”
The addition of American flights has been good for Bozeman, Billings and eastern Montana, she said.
“Now to welcome them into the western side of the state and open up the markets they’re opening up for us, especially the international markets, is absolutely fabulous,” said Neilan.
The American Airlines corporate headquarters is at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, its largest hub. It launches more than 6,700 flights a day, to more than 350 locations and 56 countries.
“What that means is that the folks in Missoula can travel to those locations that previously may not have been available,” said Shane Stack, who chairs Missoula’s Airport Authority board. “Additionally, all the folks in all those other communities can come to Montana and experience the wonderful culture that we have here. This is a great place, and I’d say we’re willing to share that with guests who want to come.”
Even as Missoula celebrated American’s arrival on Thursday, the airline was holding a special gate event in Texas to launch a new seasonal flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Reykjavik, Iceland. It featured an ice sculpture, traditional food and music from Iceland.
Last month American initiated flights from Chicago to Venice, Italy.
Glunz said that means people in western Montana can leave Missoula today and be in Reykjavik or Venice tomorrow morning.
Destination Missoula is one of Montana’s 18 convention and visitor bureaus. Glacier Country Tourism is one of the state tourism office’s six regions.
Glacier Country’s executive director, Racene Friede, said they’re spending between $40,000 and $50,000, much of it derived from shares of the state’s 4 percent bed tax, to fly with their western Montana partners to Dallas for a meeting of movers and shakers on June 21.
“We’re holding an event to invite meeting planners and social media influencers and all the media people and business people from that area who need to know about this flight and also to know why coming into western Montana is different than coming into either Bozeman or Billings,” Neilan said. “Our marketing campaign down there is pretty much: ‘You can have breakfast in Dallas and lunch in Missoula. Come and enjoy the cool mountain air.’
“Considering it’s over 100 (degrees) down there right now, I think people are going to appreciate that.”
Taylor was already enjoying it.
He got bumped up to first class on Thursday morning’s nonstop flight of barely three hours.
“I sat in the front row and slept the whole way,” he said with a grin.
The addition of American jets brings to six the number of airlines to Missoula International, three of which begin with “A.” They are Alaska, Allegiant and American, along with Delta, Frontier and United.
The American plane that flies into Missoula from Dallas-Fort Worth continues on to Chicago. The one from Chicago goes on to Dallas-Fort Worth. The daily schedule: Arrive from Dallas-Fort Worth at 11:56 a.m.; depart for Chicago at 12:37 p.m.; arrive from Chicago at 12:45 p.m.; depart for Dallas-Fort Worth at 1:23 p.m.