Like many Montana airports, Glacier Park International Airport had its beginnings on a long, level reach of farm ground. Clearing for a crude runway began circa 1942 on land north and east of Kalispell. Early residents referred to the landing strip as “The LaSalle Airport,” probably due to its location along LaSalle Road which connected Kalispell to the north valley. Over the next several years a terminal was erected, and in 1948 the facility was completed and designated as Flathead County Airport (FCA) by the Federal Aviation Administration. The first commercial carrier, Northwest Airlines, began service in 1950.
Though traffic was sparse in the beginning, the fledgling facility slowly gathered speed. FCA became an international airport in 1970 with the addition of U.S. Customs to its campus; going forward, it was known as it is now, “Glacier Park International Airport” (GPIA). With its international status, optimal location and the eventual rerouting of U.S. Highway 2 along its doorstep, the airport was poised for growth.
GPIA’s air passenger numbers climbed exponentially during the 1970s and 80s. A contingent of airlines, among them Frontier, Hughes Airwest, Western Airlines and West Coast Airlines, made entrances and exits. In 1978, the Airline Deregulation Act changed the face of commercial aviation, impacting GPIA, as well. Major carriers parried for control with mergers and takeovers, and the strong survived. Today GPIA is served by four of them: Alaska, Delta, United and Allegiant.
With the burgeoning tide of air traffic, GPIA soon outgrew the 1948 terminal building. A new, more modern terminal was constructed in 1981, and significant additions were made to that structure in 1997. An additional $8 million upgrade was completed in 2011, with plans presently underway for significant expansion.
In November of 2017, GPIA broke it’s latest record when the 247,446th departing passenger for that year arrived at the security checkpoint.
Beyond serving those record numbers of passengers, GPIA is the Flathead Valley’s hub of aeronautical activity. The facility serves private aircraft, medical and air ambulance providers, search and rescue operators and cargo carriers like Fed-Ex and UPS, to name a few. During the summers, it serves as a strategic base for firefighting crews. There have been a few moments in the spotlight, too: GPIA has welcomed a U. S. President, and served as host for the Navy Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds. All in all, it seems the little landing strip on LaSalle has come some distance in its seventy-some years.