By the end of the day Thursday, Idaho Falls Regional Airport had celebrated the start of three new summer flights in less than a week.
The first flight between Idaho Falls and Dallas/Fort Worth took off around 1:50 p.m. on Thursday. The first flight between Idaho Falls and Portland arrived at the airport the previous Friday morning, while the first summer flight to Phoenix left late Thursday afternoon.
All the new flights are part of what is shaping up to be a busy few months for the regional airport. By the end of August, the airport will complete the final stages of a $12 million renovation and expansion that doubles the number of gates. Airport director Rick Cloutier estimated that Idaho Falls could see half a million travelers per year coming through the airport by the end of 2022.
“We had been beyond our capacity even before the new flights were coming in,” Cloutier said. “All this growth helps us operate more efficiently, allows for more passengers and flights, and meets the growing needs of the region.”
The initial flight to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport took off with 63 passengers on board. Before taking off, the plane taxied through two arcs of water from Idaho Falls Fire Department trucks — the airport’s traditional celebration for a new route.
The Yadon family booked the flight to attend a relative’s graduation in Louisiana without realizing it would be the start of a new route.
“We got a free water bottle and these luggage tags to mark our suitcases. That’s a nice start to a flight,” Steve Yadon said.
Both the Dallas and Phoenix flights are operated by American Airlines and will be expanding to twice-daily trips later in the summer. Allegiant Airlines provides the flight to Portland, while Alaska Airlines will operate the summer’s fourth new route when it begins service to Seattle on June 16.
The Transportation Security Administration projected that this summer could be the busiest on record for Idaho Falls. Travel projections and seat purchases indicate the airport could see 20% more passengers than it had during the summer of 2019, which had set the previous record for passenger volume.
Andrew Coose, the TSA federal security director for all six major Idaho airports, said that Idaho Falls was especially well-positioned to expand its passenger numbers over the summer with the new flights.
“There is a boom now that more people are getting out of their homes. The national parks create a lot of interest and demand,” Coose said.
The full summer expansion of routes will bring 17 daily flights through Idaho Falls Regional Airport. Cloutier said the airport could handle up to 30 flights a day, thanks to the additional gates.
“Not only do we have the most options of any airport in eastern Idaho, but we have the lowest average fares,” Cloutier said.
Nationally, air travel numbers are rebounding from last year’s restrictions but have not reached their previous levels. TSA checkpoint data showed that between May 25 and May 31, more than 12 million passengers went through airport security. That is significantly above the 2 million passengers during the same Memorial Day span last year, but down from the nearly 17 million travelers that went through checkpoints in 2019.
Idaho Falls budgeted $12 million for the airport expansion in 2019. The vast majority of that budget ended up coming from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program, which provided $11.4 million that year for building upgrades.
The first phase of improvements was finished early last year when the new TSA screening area and baggage claim opened. Neal Gekeler, one of the TSA officers at Idaho Falls Regional Airport, said the expanded space allowed them to see more than 300 passengers an hour during the busiest parts of the year so far.
The expansion brings the airport up to six gates, with three on each floor. The new ground-floor terminal had previously been where airport vehicles were parked when they weren’t used to prepare flights. A restaurant with seating for up to 50 people will open on the second floor late in the summer.
The airport is among the dwindling number of locations that require face masks. The majority of airlines still require masks for passengers on their planes unless they’re eating or have a disability exemption.
“There are some people who push against the mask requirement. We just tell them that it’s for the safety and health of all our passengers,” Gekeler said.
The airport’s next phase of expansion may not be too far away. Cloutier said they would be spending the rest of the year setting up the next 10-year Airport Master Plan for additional expansion. Right now the plan contains few sure additions, though Cloutier said they were looking into growing the parking options and attracting even more routes to Idaho Falls.
Brennen is the main education reporter for the Post Register. Contact him with news tips at 208-542-6711.