By RYAN MURRAY/Daily Inter Lake | June 16, 2015 at 7:00 pm
The first season of a flight to Chicago has proven so popular that United Airlines already wants to go again next year — good news for tourism in the Flathead.
Glacier Airline Enhancement and Retention Outreach secured one flight to and from Chicago each Saturday from Dec. 20 through April 4.
At Tuesday’s Kalispell Chamber of Commerce meeting, the statistics showed how successful the flights have been.
The flights were 67 percent full, with the heaviest traveler months in December, March and April and at least 750 out-of-market passengers coming to the Flathead. Plans are already in the works to add a weekday flight between the existing Saturday flights to Denver.
AERO convinced United Airlines to take on the new route with a minimum revenue guarantee of $235,545. The guarantees are a way for airlines to mitigate their risk and for communities to entice airlines to serve them.
Dan Graves, the chief executive officer of Whitefish Mountain Resort and one of the major drivers behind the Chicago project, said the flights proved to be low risk enough that United was ready to recommit itself to Kalispell.
“It went so well that United loaded flights for next year before April was even over,” he said. “And, it’s not official yet, but there are discussions that the MRG will be approximately 30 percent less next year.”
Montana had a full tourism blitz in the Windy City, putting ads for Montana and Whitefish Mountain Resort in train stations on billboards and bus wraps around Chicago.
Graves said his resort had a doubling of Chicago traffic over last year and a marked increase from upper-Midwest and East Coast states.
The appeal to Chicago was a natural one for a domestic flight expansion, considering the city’s size and easy connection to large East Coast markets, and the marketing campaign paid dividends for tourist spots such as Whitefish Mountain Resort. Winter was selected because of the low volume of flights in that season compared to summer.
It was seen as mutually beneficial for the Flathead Valley and United.
Glacier AERO was founded in 2012 in conjunction with Glacier Park International Airport and is responsible for bringing flights to the San Francisco Bay area, Las Vegas and Denver.
Low fuel prices this winter made the Chicago flights slightly cheaper than expected, saving a significant chunk of the minimum revenue guarantee. The guarantee was funded through a $100,000 grant from the Flathead County Economic Development Authority that required a $150,000 match through AERO fundraising efforts.
A study from the Montana tourism board found that while 10.6 percent of Montana’s tourists come via air, they spend nearly twice as much per day as those who arrive via highway: $332.86 per day compared to $175.19.
The Chicago flight didn’t take away visitors from a flight to regional hub Denver, which was a fear of some organizers. Because of the success, expansion in the next few years is a likelihood, Graves said.
“We’re certainly looking at more locations,” he said. “We’d definitely like to have something in the south, maybe Texas. Also expanding flights to the ’Cisco Bay area.”