Big Sky shrinks 

Billings and Spokane will be a whole lot farther away for Flathead Valley residents next week.

Billings-based Big Sky Airlines decided July 18 that as of Aug. 4, it will no longer provide service to Kalispell, Great Falls, or Spokane. Big Sky was the only airline providing service to Spokane from Glacier International Airport in Kalispell, and the only direct flight to Billings. Flathead travelers wanting to go to Billings will now have to fly to Salt Lake City first, says Michele Upwall, assistant manager of AAA Travel’s Kalispell branch.

“The biggest loss for us will be travel in the state of Montana,” she says. She says it could also make the trip to the Flathead more difficult for travelers who used to fly into Spokane on larger airlines, and then use Big Sky to get to Kalispell.

The news comes even as Flathead County’s population continues to explode, up from about 60,000 in 1990 to almost 80,000 now, and is expected to reach 87,000 by 2010.

“The flights have been absolutely full this summer,” says Upwall, “They’re packed.”

Monte Eliason, Glacier International Airport’s interim director, says that the reduction in flights is indicative of a nationwide trend. Many airlines, he says, had “excess capacity,” or too many seats, and have been eliminating them to combat financial difficulties.

Last September, Big Sky Airlines cancelled planned service between Kalispell and Calgary, which it had originally intended to start that October, due to the high cost of fuel.

Big Sky President Fred deLeeuw says the airline was losing money on Kalispell flights due to high fuel costs and a dearth of year-round passengers.

Charlie Lyman, a spokesman for Big Mountain, says while “losing routes is never a good thing,” the effect on Big Mountain will be difficult to gauge.

“Half a year ago, people said gas prices would hurt tourism,” he notes. “Now AAA is telling us that there are more people traveling than ever.”

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