After wintry weather and chaotic holiday travel canceled thousands of flights across U.S. airports in late December, freezing rain and snow forced the closure of Glacier Park International Airport (GPIA) on the afternoon and evening of Christmas Day.
“It was expected,” GPIA director Rob Rutkowski said. “Everything was very cold, so the corridor was very air-conditioned, and then we moved a heated air duct.”
Visibility on Christmas Day measured only one-eighth of a mile, which did not meet the FAA standard of half a mile, forcing the airport to temporarily suspend operations.
According to National Weather Service data, temperatures in Kalispell fell to a low of -34 degrees Fahrenheit on Dec. 22 and rose to 31 degrees below zero on Christmas Day. On Dec. 27, the temperature continued to rise to a maximum of 39 degrees.
Freezing rain in Seattle caused Alaska Airlines to cancel several flights to Kalispell, and caused Christmas travel chaos. The airline canceled more than a third of its US flights on the Friday before Christmas.
“We want to give a big shout out to our crew who worked so hard over the Christmas break,” Rutkowski said. “We’re happy to move people as much as we can — but you can’t fight physics.”
Nationwide, 4,170 flights, including international flights, were canceled in the U.S., and there were 13,342 delays as of Thursday afternoon, according to FlightAware.
Southwest Airlines – which does not operate on GPIA – canceled 70% of its flights and was the worst hit on Monday.
While GPIA’s December travel data is not yet available, November’s data revealed slightly higher traffic than the same month in 2021 with 22,563 departures compared to 22,328 in 2021.
Separately, the airport’s expansion plan, construction crews are continuing to build the first phase, which will triple the airport’s size, is halfway complete. A grand opening for the new $100 million facility is planned for October 2023, and Rutkowski says the airport will be significantly bigger this summer with a new security checkpoint, a grand staircase, a restaurant and bar and more.
The second phase of the project is funded by the central government.
The airport will also include expanded passenger areas, back-of-house improvements, TSA screening checkpoints and baggage areas. Two gates will be added to the existing five gates with larger waiting areas and a bar and restaurant with concessions, all designed to ease congestion. Flathead County will get its first escalators and the airport design will add “architectural flair” with glass, wood, steel and stone construction materials.
“We’ll have a little more room this summer than we’ve had historically,” Rutkowski said.